Thanks to their significant injury situation and size disadvantage, Northwestern knew they would need to be excellent from the field and catch a few breaks if they were going to hang around with Ohio State. For 36 minutes they did exactly that, hitting 11 three pointers and shooting around 50% for most of the game to scare the living daylights out of Ohio State before the Buckeye's superior size and rebounding ability helped them grind out the 69-57 victory.
Deshaun Thomas, after only shooting 2-10 with 5 points in the first half, put the team on his back in route to a 22 point, 7 rebound performance. Lenzelle Smith Jr had 12, all in the first half for the Buckeyes, while Amir Williams added 10 points and 8 rebounds.
Four Wildcats reached double figures, led by 16 points from Tre Demps. Northwestern shot 11-26 (42.3%) from three and 46% from the floor. Kale Amrahamson had 13 points, and Reggie Hearn added 12. Despite being reduced to only five scholarship players at the end of the game, Northwestern hit 11 threes to hang with the Buckeyes in a close battle in Columbus.
The Buckeyes jumped to an early 4-0 lead on the strength of a Lenzelle Smith Jr three and Amir Williams splitting a pair of free throws, but any illusions of a Buckeye romp ended there. Northwestern promptly reeled off a 10-0 run, thanks to three pointers from Tre Demps and Reggie Hearn, and a pair of backdoor cutters made possible thanks to slow Buckeye rotations and lack of defensive intensity. A Smith drive plus the foul cut the lead to 3 and stopped the bleeding for the Buckeyes, but Ohio State was never able to make the game easy.
A big part of that was Northwestern's ability to slow the game down, share the basketball, and shoot a high percentage from three, even when those shots were highly defended. Ohio State didn't help themselves thanks to a sluggish first half from Thomas (2-10 shooting) and poor free throw shooting (44% from the line). Ohio State was able to take a 30-27 lead with only 3 seconds to go in the half, but Demp banked a running three pointer at the buzzer to tie the game.
The Wildcats shot a whopping 50% from the floor in the first half, with Hearn leading the way at 10 points. Perhaps the only thing that Ohio State did exceptionally well was utilize their significant size and rebounding advantage. The Buckeyes had a 7-2 offensive rebound advantage at halftime, and was able to get multiple Wildcats, like Mike Turner and Abrahamson, in foul trouble.
Ohio State drew first blood on an Amir Williams putback in the second half, but Northwestern refused to go away. The Wildcats hit 4 three pointers out of the gate, and lead 48-43 with 10:30 to go after a Thomas goaltend. The announcers began to remind the crowd that Northwestern hadn't won in Columbus since 1977, but there was a palatable nervous energy among the crowd.
Luckily for the Buckeyes, Deshaun Thomas was able to reassert himself, just as Northwestern's lack of depth began to catch up with them.
Thomas willed the Buckeyes back to within 2, 51-49 with 6:46 left in the game. Shannon Scott then hit a huge three pointer to give the Buckeyes the 52-51 lead with 5:49. Northwestern's Abrahamson answered right by with a spinning and-one in the lane to push the margin back to 54-52, only for Thomas to storm back into the lane with an and one of his own to give a one point lead right back to Ohio State.
The Buckeyes switched to a smallball lineup to counter the shooters of Northwester, with Thomas playing center. A Sam Thompson tip in with 4:00 left gave the Buckeyes a lead they wouldn't lose, although Demps was able to tie the game with a three of his own at 3:20.
The next possession proved to be the critical sequence, as both Mike Turner (8 assists) and Abrahamson fouled out on 2 consecutive possessions. This left Northwestern with only five exhausted scholarship players for the final three minutes, which just wasn't enough. Thomas hit a tough baseline jumper to give Ohio State a 59-57 lead (he missed the free throw). After a Wildcat miss, Aaron Craft sliced through the lane for a contested layup as the shot clock expired, and a pair of Slam Thompson dunks pushed towards the final Buckeye margin.
Ohio State outrebounded Northwestern 37-16 on the game, including a whopping 16-4 disparity on the offensive glass. Amir Williams added 5 of those offensive rebounds, while Shannon Scott had 7 boards to go with his 6 assists and 5 points.
Northwestern may have been a little fortunate to be as close as they were on the road, but they played an excellent game under tough circumstances and are highly deserving of their praise. Ohio State started the game off exceptionally sluggishly and didn't really establish a true offensive system until the waning minutes of the game. Still, the excellent all-around performance of Scott, the domination of the glass by Williams and the clutch performances from Craft and Thomas should be commended. In a game Ohio State absolutely COULD NOT afford to lose, they willed a lagging team to victory.
There are no more "gimmies" on the schedule for the Buckeyes, as even the return trip to Evanston should prove to be a difficult game. Not every team is going to shoot as well from three as the Wildcats, but Ohio State won't be able to enjoy a similar depth advantage either.
If there is anything we've learned this season, especially in closer than expected games with Penn State and Nebraska, it's that every Big Ten game is going to be war. At the end of the day, Ohio State comes out with a win, and that's ultimately what's important.