Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
The Ohio State men’s basketball team entered its tilt against Northwestern having watched fellow Big Ten squads No. 1 Indiana and No. 4 Michigan fall to unranked opponents in the past week.
The No. 16-ranked Buckeyes did not suffer such a fate, beating the unranked Wildcats, 63-53, Thursday night in Evanston, Ill.
Despite shooting 43 percent from the field and only 57 percent from the free-throw line, OSU used a second-half surge to put Northwestern away and keep outside hopes of its fourth-straight Big Ten championship alive.
Junior forward Deshaun Thomas continued his streak of games of scoring at least double-digit points, finishing with 19 points and a team-leading seven rebounds.
Thomas, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, played second fiddle to junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., who finished with a season-high 24 points and made a career-high of six shots from behind the arc.
In part thanks to Smith Jr.’s outburst, the Buckeyes (21-7, 11-5 Big Ten) led for the entirety of the game’s first half as the Zion, Ill., native made his first four tries from the 3-point line and had 14 points at the contest’s intermission.
Seven straight points from Wildcats freshman forward Tre Demps to open the second half, though, brought Northwestern within two points of the Buckeyes’ 36-34 lead. Demps finished with 14 points off the bench.
A fall away 3-pointer with the shot clock expiring by freshman Kale Abrahamson gave the Wildcats the lead, 41-40, with 10:12 to play.
OSU battled back behind Smith Jr.’s fifth 3-pointer of the game and went ahead, 45-41, with 8:40 left to play.
The Wildcats (13-16, 4-12 Big Ten) would not go away easy, as senior guard Reggie Hearn made a 3-ball to put Northwestern ahead, 49-48, with 4:13 remaining in the game.
On the ensuing possession, Smith Jr. hit another shot beyond the arc to put the Buckeyes back ahead, 51-49. They would not trail again in the game.
The Buckeyes got free throws from junior guard Aaron Craft, sophomore guard Shannon Scott and Thomas with less than a minute to go to extend the lead. After a held ball, Craft threw a deep pass to sophomore forward Sam Thompson for a runaway-dunk with 27 seconds left to provide an exclamation point on the victory.
The win, OSU’s third in a row, moves the team to a game-and-a half behind the Big Ten’s first-place squad, Indiana, with just two games in the regular season remaining.
OSU pulled one-half game ahead of the Wolverines for sole possession of fourth place in the conference.
OSU travels to Bloomington, Ind., Tuesday to take on the Hoosiers at 9 p.m.