After slugging through a forgetful January in which they lost five of seven games, the Ohio State Buckeyes came into a showdown with No. 15 Michigan on a three-game winning streak, threatening to get back into the thick of the Big Ten race.
They left the Schottenstein Center Tuesday still on the outside looking in on the Big Ten’s best, falling to the Wolverines, 70-60.
Led by 15 points from sophomore guard Nik Stauskas, Michigan (18-6, 10-2) came back from an early 10-point deficit to win.
“Every loss hurts. Obviously you can’t get comfortable and we found a way to play tough on the road for a couple games and we came home and got one and today we didn’t have it,” senior guard Aaron Craft said after the loss. “We have six games left, so as much as this may hurt, we have to move forward. We have to find a way to continue to get better because nothing’s guaranteed and there’s still a lot to play for.”
The Buckeyes (19-6, 6-6) got off to a fast start, as back-to-back dunks by junior forwards Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross gave OSU an 11-5 lead with 15:26 left in the first half.
Ross had the hot hand early, nailing his first five shots from the field on his way to 13 first half points.
After Michigan freshman guard Zak Irvin hit two of three free throws to make the score 21-16 with 7:49 left in the opening half, OSU extended its lead to 10 with an acrobatic layup by junior center Amir Williams and a deep 3-pointer from the wing by senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Michigan responded, though, using an 8-0 run near the end of the half to stay close. Two free throws from Ross with less than two seconds left gave the Buckeyes a 30-26 lead at the break.
After Stauskas nailed a 3-pointer on the first possession of the second half, OSU proceeded to go on a 7-0 run aided by another 3-pointer by Smith Jr.
Michigan was able to stay close though, and took a 44-43 lead after two free throws by Stauskas.
OSU cut Michigan’s lead to 51-50 following a free throw by Ross, but Michigan gathered an offensive rebound on three straight possessions, helping the Wolverines get back a six point lead.
Thompson got another dunk in transition, but with the lead cut to four, Williams missed the front end of a one-and-one with 3:09 to go.
Michigan sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III then hit a 3-pointer in the corner to make the score 59-52.
Williams then fouled freshman guard Derrick Walton Jr. on a 3-pointer with 1:54 remaining as the shot clock expired, negating the slim hopes the Buckeyes had to get back in the game. Walton Jr. made all three free throws, and a miss on the other end by OSU forced the Buckeyes to foul to stop the clock.
But Michigan made eight free throws in final 1:32 to ice the game.
“I thought at times we played some pretty good basketball, but we hit that stretch as we did in some of those games in January where we took our foot — I don’t want to say we took our foot off the gas — but we played hard but we weren’t as sharp execution-wise as we needed to be,” OSU coach Thad Matta said after the game.
Ross led the way for OSU with a game-high 24 points on 8-17 shooting, while Smith Jr. chipped in 13 of his own.
After the game Ross said even though it was a tough loss, he thinks his teammates will be able to bounce back.
“We’ve got a tough group of guys. I think everybody’s going to come in when we go back to practice with a different mentality and they know that we’ve got another game,” Ross said. “Guys will be down about it tonight but we’ve gotta look forward. We’ve got six games left in the Big Ten so we’ve gotta be ready for those.”
Up next, OSU is slated to travel to Champaign, Ill., Saturday to take on the Fighting Illini. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m.