The 29th time wasn’t the charm for the Northwestern men’s basketball team. For long stretches of the Wildcats game against Ohio State Thursday night, though, it looked like it might be.
Winless in its last 28 trips to Columbus, Northwestern (13-12, 4-8) yet again fell victim to OSU (18-6, 8-4 Big Ten), 69-59. With the win, the Buckeyes, coming off losses to Indiana and Michigan, avoided their first three-game losing streak since February 2009.
Northwestern didn’t fall without a fight, however, leading for most of the game before OSU pulled away late on a 17-5 run.
“In today’s day and age, this is a heck of a win for us,” OSU coach Thad Matta said.
Playing a zone defense because of a worry that they would get into foul trouble otherwise-Northwestern had just seven healthy scholarship players-the Wildcats stagnated the Big Ten’s leading scorer, Deshaun Thomas, and his team’s offense.
“My center, he averages about three fouls every 10 minutes. I’m serious. I knew he couldn’t play one-on-one. Staying out of foul trouble was a major concern,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said.
Thomas, who leads the conference in scoring with more than 20 points per game, had just five points at halftime. Thomas showed up in a big way in the game’s decisive moments, though. He scored 15 points in the game’s final nine minutes.
“Shots weren’t falling that I normally make,” the junior forward said. “I showed a lot of maturity tonight. When my teammates needed me, I got it done.”
One teammate was there for Thomas when he wasn’t feeling it. Junior guard Aaron Craft spoke to Thomas multiple times during the game’s first 30 minutes-in which Thomas had just seven points-and told him to keep his head in the game.
Matta told Thomas to listen to his fellow veteran teammate.
“He’ll get you through,” Matta said to Thomas.
The reason Thomas said he was frustrated, however, was because of how Northwestern was playing on offense.
Nearly everything was falling for the Wildcats in the game’s opening twenty minutes.
The No. 13-ranked Buckeyes went into halftime tied with the Wildcats, who had only nine players in uniform because of various injuries and suspension, 30-30.
“That’s who Northwestern is. When they’re making shots, they’ve a very good basketball team,” Craft said, who finished with seven points, including two critical late buckets.
For twenty minutes, Northwestern’s stingy zone defense frustrated the Buckeyes. On the other end of the floor, the Wildcats were patient, many times waiting until the shot clock was set to expire before firing a shot. They usually converted, too, shooting 50 percent from the field in the first half, capped by a banked 3-pointer at the buzzer from freshman guard Tre Demps.
“Every time you play these guys it’s a grind. It weighs on you more mentally than physically,” Craft said, speaking of Northwestern’s tendency to try to slow the pace down.
OSU made an emphasis to attack the paint in the second half. They were successful, getting the ball to sophomore center Amir Williams down low on back-to-back possessions to start the game’s final half, who converted both times.
The Buckeyes got hot from deep as well, with sophomore forward Sam Thompson and Craft each hitting 3-pointers early.
But Northwestern wasn’t going away. Every time OSU looked like it might go on a pull-away run-after Craft’s three or following a block in transition by sophomore guard Shannon Scott or when Thomas had a two-handed slam on a breakaway-the Wildcats had an answer.
The Schottenstein Center’s crowd was on its feet for a majority of the second half, clapping and cheering in hopes to push the Buckeyes over the figurative hump. Northwestern’s bench was on its feet in jubiliation a lot though, too.
OSU took the lead on three separate occasions in the second half’s first 15 minutes. Each time it happened, Northwestern got back in front. The Wildcats used 3-pointers (NU made 11) to counter the Buckeyes’ athleticism on defense.
The fourth time OSU took the lead, they did it for good. Northwestern had its chances, possibly best highlighted by a missed layup by senior guard Reggie Hearn that sat on the rim for nearly three seconds, but the Buckeyes’ defense rose to the occasion.
Matta used a small lineup featuring Thomas as the tallest player on the court down the stretch, and it worked, allowing OSU to press and trap the Wildcats. That lineup helped Thomas on the offensive end, too, allowing him to post-up on the slower, less athletic Wildcat big men.
“It was all going to be on the defense, in terms of what we had to get done defensively and defend the 3s,” Matta said.
OSU is set to play at Wisconsin on Sunday at 1 p.m.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 15, 2013
An earlier version of this story said that the Buckeyes have won against the Wildcats in their last 28 meetings at the Schottenstein Center. In fact, OSU has a 10-0 record against the Wildcats in the Schottenstein Center and have won the last 29 played on the Buckeyes’ home court.