Once again, the No. 1 Buckeyes earned a victory but needed a second-half spurt to do so. The final read OSU 62, Michigan 53, but it took the usual theatrics to get there.
Much like it did five days ago on the road against Northwestern. And seven days before that at Illinois. And like in nearly every other Big Ten game this season save for a 23-point mauling of Purdue a week and a half ago.
But once again, the nation's lone unbeaten team remained just that.
"I think the biggest thing is we have confidence in our offensive ability," said freshman point guard Aaron Craft, who had eight points. "We know we can put people out there who can make shots. One of the big keys is our defensive intensity. We pick it up when we need to in the second half."
As Craft pointed out, it again took a second-half rally to open the stanza that almost seemed like it was not going to happen. Trailing by three at the break after looking sluggish and sloppy in the first half, the Buckeyes needed a boost to get the second sellout crowd of the season back on their side.
Their first two possessions resulted in a blocked shot and an unenforced turnover. Meanwhile, the Wolverines (13-10, 3-7 Big Ten) went on to push their lead to a game-high six points and were threatening to add on more when the OSU defense showed up.
It was then that junior guard William Buford became the star. After being held to two points in the first half, he buried back-to-back three-pointers to pull his team even at 30-all with 16:30 remaining.
"I'm just shooting the ball," Buford said. "Every shot I shoot, I expect it to go in. It went down in the second half."
With the crowd roaring after finally finding something to cheer for, the teams traded baskets until it was knotted at 36 with 13:35 remaining. It was then that, as they have done so many times already this season, the Buckeyes mounted their charge.
An 8-0 run capped with a free throw by senior forward David Lighty at the 9:37 mark made it 44-36 Buckeyes. Freshman point guard Aaron Craft got it started with a spinning layup. Lighty tipped in his own miss and Buford added his third trey of the half to round out the scoring.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines missed four field-goal attempts, two free-throw attempts and committed one turnover during the stretch. Just like that, the Buckeyes (23-0, 10-0) had a lead they would never relinquish.
OSU head coach Thad Matta said that although his team is getting used to being forced to rally, he has not noticed any panic in his players in any of the close games this season.
Still, even he admitted to being surprised as his team's record.
"It's amazing just looking across college basketball and the wins by teams and say, ‘How did that happen?' Well there's great coaches and great players. To be sitting at 23-0 and 10-0 in the Big Ten, that's something else."
Freshman Jared Sullinger did the heavy lifting. The forward played all 40 minutes, leading all players with 19 points and 15 rebounds for his 10th double-double of the season. Buford finished with 13 points for the Buckeyes.
Afterward, Sullinger said he was sore after having his knees taken out while leaping to snare a pass.
"With a team like this, you can't concentrate on getting yours," he said. "You have to concentrate on winning. We can score in a variety of ways."
The Wolverines battled foul trouble in the second half, picking up the first seven fouls of the stanza. OSU finished with 25 attempts from the charity stripe while the Wolverines had four.
"When you're guarding the length and quickness they have and then guarding Sullinger, it's very hard to guard him and stop him without fouling," U-M head coach John Beilein said. "You're looking at the No. 1 team in the country that has a great plan trying to get the ball to the right people. He's a very unusual freshman. (You try to battle his) body control and hands and you get in foul trouble."
The final score and the game-seizing second-half run helped cover up the less-than-impressive first half. The Buckeyes went 9 of 25 (36.0 percent) from the field in the first 20 minutes while allowing the visitors to connect on 12 of 27 (44.4 percent) of their attempts.
When Buford hit his three-pointer at 17:17 of the second half, it marked OSU's first field goal in nearly six minutes.
OSU's final two possessions of the half summed it up. After a drive by U-M's Tim Hardaway Jr. made it 26-23 with 1:08 remaining, the Buckeyes worked the ball to Sullinger near the left block. Spinning to the hoop, he immediately drew the double team as he had all half and threw the ball toward the basket.
It swished through as Zack Novak's back landed on the ground. As the crowd erupted, the basket was waved off and Sullinger whistled for the charge. The Wolverines took over with 47 seconds left and about a 12-second differential between the shot and game clocks and held the ball for half a minute before Jordan Morgan missed a jumper.
OSU took over with 17 seconds left, but senior guard Jon Diebler dribbled the ball along the right wing desperately looking for an opening as his teammates looked on. Seeing nothing and with the game clock closing in on zero, he drove the basket from the right wing and spied Sullinger on the block.
His bounce pass went right through the freshman's hands and out of bounds with less than two seconds remaining. U-M was unable to get a desperation heave off before the break, keeping the score at 26-23.
The Buckeyes entered the game averaging 11.1 turnovers per contest and nearly equaled that mark in the first half, finishing with 10. Only two Buckeyes had more than one field goal in the first 20 minutes: Diebler had nine points and Sullinger added eight. They combined to go 6 for 11 from the floor while the rest of their teammates were 3 for 14.
Hardaway led his team with 15 points.
With the win, the Buckeyes maintain their three-game lead atop the Big Ten with eight games left to be played.