Back to life.
Back to reality.
After a shellacking at Wisconsin left Ohio State gasping for air at 0-4 in Big Ten play 12 days ago, Thad Matta & Co. had explored the deepest recesses of their soul and taken the initiative. But with no room for fuss or trouble, the Buckeyes fell flat on their face vs. upstart Northwestern Sunday afternoon at the Schottenstein Center, which won in Columbus for the first time in 40 years. A Matta-coached OSU team lost to the Wildcats for just the second time in 21 tries.
After hitting the road for four of their initial six conference engagements, the Buckeyes (12-8) were back home on Sunday, which is where they will play two of their next three games, too. Despite entering with some good vibrations resulting from a home victory over Michigan State last weekend and a mid-week escape at Nebraska, expectations for what will be a Keita Bates-Diop-less bunch for the rest of the season remain tempered pre-game, as Kenpom.com listed Northwestern as a 1-point road favorite.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats (16-4) came in residing in unfamiliar territory for a program that has never — repeat, never — reached the NCAA Tournament. At 4-2 in Big Ten play, Northwestern was off to its best conference start in recent memory, but only one of those contests (a road defeat to Michigan State) had been against another squad in the top six of the Big Ten standings.
Sunday, Ohio State was its typical mix of inconsistency and contradictions through 20 minutes. At the under-8 timeout, the Buckeyes were ahead 23-19 and shooting nearly 69 percent from the field, but a bigger cushion was mitigated by five turnovers and six offensive rebounds from the visitors, who had sunk just seven of their first 22 shot attempts.
Predictably, Ohio State’s fortunes turned for the worse. Northwestern’s defense ramped up its paint-packing strategy, which funneled the hosts to the wing and encouraged poor shot selection and turnovers. Offensively, the Wildcats began to whip the ball around for clean look after clean look. Over the first half’s final eight minutes, Northwestern outscored Ohio State 17-8 and led 36-31 at intermission. The Buckeyes have now been behind at half in all but one of their seven conference tilts.
A score by Jae’Sean Tate and a transition and-1 by Marc Loving leveled the game almost immediately to begin the second half. The Buckeyes then had to rely on Trevor Thompson’s glass cleaning/free-throw shooting and the official’s whistle to stay in the game, as they went nearly six minutes between field goal makes at one juncture. Northwestern was in the double bonus with 11 minutes and 20 tickets on the second half clock.
With the Buckeyes requiring bench punch more than ever these days, it was reserve point guard C.J. Jackson who stepped forth with the visitors threatening to seize control. Jackson’s long two and 3-pointer off a feed from JaQuan Lyle pushed the hosts ahead 55-52 with eight and half minutes to go.
The back-and-forth nature of the affair continued, with the two teams trading leads and demerits from the men in stripes, though the whistle still favored the Scarlet and Gray. The Wildcats surged ahead by five with about three minutes to go, with Matta forced to call timeout after a lazy crosscourt pass turned into a Northwestern layup.
Ohio State notched another turnover out of the timeout, but a hustle play by Lyle led to a clutch triple by Tate. Then, a free throw by Tate cut Northwestern’s advantage to 63-62 with 90 seconds left.
Wildcat point guard Bryant McIntosh coolly hit a pair of freebies to increase his team’s lead to 65-62 a few seconds later, though. Sanjay Lumpkin added two more free throws after Lyle couldn’t convert a shot in the lane. Kam Williams couldn’t land a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession.
Ohio State inched to within 70-68 late with triples from Lyle and Micah Potter. Vic Law’s two free throws with 17.6 seconds seemingly sealed the game, but a potential and-1 putback from Loving allowed for hope to re-emerge. However, Loving missed the free throw, and the Wildcats held on thanks to two free throws from Scottie Lindsey.
Free throw shooting (12-of-23) was again a major culprit behind the Buckeyes’ demise, who may have been on the receiving end of a few questionable calls late but hoarded the benefit of the doubt for most of the afternoon. Northwestern hit 19 of its 24 freebies.
Lindsey led all scorers with 21 points, and has now reached double figures in all 20 of his team’s games. Lumpkin added 11 rebounds. Tate paced the hosts with 14 points.
3 things we learned:
1. Ohio State can still salvage its season. Ohio State’s next five games: home vs. Minnesota; at Iowa; home vs. Maryland; at Michigan; and home vs. Rutgers. All five of those contests are very winnable.
With the potential for signature wins over its final six conference forays plus the opportunity to manufacture mayhem in the Big Ten Tournament, Ohio State’s pathway to 20ish wins and a ticket to the Big Dance is right in front of it — all the Buckeyes need is one of those once-familiar late-season surges from yesteryear.
2. The rise of Trevor Thompson continues. The junior center continued his strong play Sunday, registering his ninth career double-double with 11 points and 15 rebounds. Thompson posted up hard, and didn’t get frustrated when the ball didn’t come his way. (Thompson notched just six field goal attempts). Again, he did yeoman’s work on the boards, the most notable example of which came early in the second half when Thompson corralled a pair of tough offensive rebounds to extend two possessions.
Entering Sunday, Thompson was averaging nearly 11 points and nine rebounds per game this year, up from 6.5 points and 5.1 boards a year ago. Thompson has improved his shooting percentage to nearly 60 percent, he’s reliable from the line (74 percent), and he’s averaging nearly two blocks per game. Fouls remain an issue, but kudos to Thompson and the coaching staff for the big man’s leap forward this season.
3. Marc Loving and JaQuan Lyle can’t have off-games at the same time. Through nearly the first 30 minutes, Ohio State’s two best (active) all-around talents were delivering relative stinkers.
Loving, who has emerged as Ohio State’s most consistent player, struggled mightily in the first half and delivered a doughnut on the scoring sheet. Lyle was taken out of the flow of the game immediately as he picked up a pair of fouls just over two minutes into the game. It seemed as if Northwestern’s paint-packing defense adversely affected both players, as Loving and Lyle combined to go 2-of-7 from the field with four turnovers through intermission.
Loving and Lyle improved their play in the second half, but both players still left something to be desired. In the end, Loving finished 2-of-8 from the floor, logging five points, five rebounds, two dimes, and two turnovers. Lyle had 10 points on 3-of-7 shooting, but his four helpers were neutralized by four turnovers.