With sophomore forward Keita Bates-Diop picking up two fouls in less than three minutes Wednesday, the Ohio State men’s basketball team looked to be at an early disadvantage in its quest to pull off an upset against Northwestern.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Coming off the bench earlier than usual to relieve Bates-Diop was redshirt sophomore Kam Williams, who stole the show and propelled the Buckeyes (11-5, 3-0) to a 65-56 victory over the Wildcats (13-3, 1-2) on the road.
The 6-foot-2 Williams led all scorers with 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including 5-of-9 from 3-point territory. He added two rebounds and one assist.
“I just noticed early in shootaround that I couldn’t miss,” Williams told the Big Ten Network following the win. “I pride myself staying ready so I don’t have to get ready.”
Redshirt sophomore center Trevor Thompson chipped in 12 points and 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the season, while junior forward Marc Loving contributed 10 points, seven rebounds and two assists to lift OSU to its seventh straight victory.
Bryant McIntosh paced Northwestern with 16 points and six assists, but the usually efficient sophomore guard turned the ball over five times and shot just 33 percent on his 15 field goal attempts.
His uncharacteristic struggles coincided with the rest of his team, as the whole unit posted just a 31.4 percent clip from the field, including a paltry 21.4 percent from 3-point land.
OSU’s energy defensively and timely runs, fused with unusually poor shooting from the Wildcats, allowed the Scarlet and Gray to overcome 12 turnovers and grab the upset.
With the game’s outcome in limbo as the Buckeyes led by just one point, they peeled off a 14-6 run in the final 5:28 to secure the victory.
The score was close for the most part, but whenever OSU found itself with its back to the wall, the young Buckeyes responded.
“I thought our guys did a great job being resilient because things did not go the way planned,” OSU coach Thad Matta told the Big Ten Network after the win. “They didn’t go the way Northwestern planned.”
Both teams stumbled out of the gates in the first half, with neither team connecting from 3-point territory and a combined 11 fouls being called in the opening 10 minutes.
But soonthereafter, Williams began to find his groove, connecting on two 3-point attempts, en route notching eight first-half points and one assist, to help OSU assert itself as the aggressor.
The assist came on a dunk by Loving after Williams’ jumped into the passing lane, taking the pass the other way for the easy fastbreak points.
That play capped off an 8-0 run for OSU, giving it a 26-17 lead — its biggest of the first half.
But the well soon went dry for the Scarlet and Gray, as they did not score over the course of the final 4:10.
Northwestern, on the other hand, finally founds its groove, ripping off a 10-0 run to close the first half. After missing their first 11 3-point attempts, the Wildcats netted on back-to-back deep balls and used four straight points from Westlake, Ohio, native Gavin Skelly to head into the locker room leading 27-26.
“We challenged our guys because I felt like we were so robotic at the beginning of the game,” Matta said in his interview with Big Ten Network. “(Williams), obviously, came in and lit the wick again.”
In the second half, the play between both teams was much more fluid. It might have taken 20 minutes, but OSU and Northwestern were each able to shake off the sluggish start to trade punches throughout the final frame.
Behind the momentum from the end of the first half, Northwestern redshirt senior guard Tre Demps connected on a layup to give the Wildcats a two-point advantage with 14:20 left in the game.
But the Buckeyes responded, snatching back the lead at 37-36 on a Williams 3-pointer. From there, OSU did not relinquish it, despite numerous attempts by Northwestern to answer.
It was the kind of win that the inexperienced Buckeyes might not have been able to pull off early in the season, when they struggled mightily, including a four-game skid.
“Obviously, we’ve grown up a little bit, we’re a little bit more mature. We’re understanding,” Matta said. “I give these guys credit. They’ve done a great job of coming together as a team and that’s how you got to win in this league.”
Freshman guard JaQuan Lyle had an up-and-down performance for the Buckeyes, turning the ball over six times, but he also handed out seven assists, grabbed five rebounds and scored seven points.
Fellow first-year player, forward Mickey Mitchell, impressed. Matta called his performance “incredible,” as the 6-foot-7 Texan played well defensively and dished out three flashy assists.
With the win, OSU has now started conference play 3-0 for the first time since the 2010-11 season.
The Buckeyes are set to be back in action Sunday on the road against Indiana (13-3). Tipoff is slated for 1:30 p.m. at the famed Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana.