Entering the second half with just a four-point lead over a team that's sitting in the second half of the Big Ten standings, No. 24 Ohio State (21-6, 8-6) finally put together the type of performance that it's been missing since the start of conference play. The Buckeyes reeled off a 24-7 run in the second stanza's opening 10 minutes, paving the way for what was ultimately a 76-60 win over Northwestern (12-15, 5-9) in Columbus on Wednesday night.
"We did a pretty good job of getting inside the defense and attacking and we were finishing around there," OSU head coach Thad Matta said. "Getting in the offensive flow was good for us."
What was an otherwise lopsided second half turned eventful when a scuffle between the Buckeyes and Wildcats broke out with 5:24 left in the game. When all was said and done, OSU forward LaQuinton Ross was ejected from the contest for shoving two Northwestern players, while Wildcats reserve center Nikola Cerina was also kicked out for throwing a punch toward Amir Williams.
Cerina will be suspended for Northwestern's next contest for throwing a closed-handed punch in an act that was officially deemed as "fighting," while Ross -- Ohio State's leading scorer -- will not be suspended, as his two technical fouls only earned him an ejection.
"We've gotta make sure we keep our composure," Matta said of the incident. "Those things happen so fast that instincts or whatever it is -- I thought 'Q' played a very solid basketball game tonight."
OSU's strong second half stretch began with a pair of Aaron Craft free throws and was aided by eight points from Sam Thompson, four from Lenzelle Smith Jr. and a Ross three-point jumper. The Buckeyes pushed their lead to 21 on a Marc Loving free throw with 10:46 remaining on the clock, before a 5-0 Wildcats run cut OSU's advantage to 16.
The Buckeyes would go onto stretch their lead back out to 21 points on a Shannon Scott three and Craft layup, before maintaining a comfortable distance from the Wildcats for the remainder of the game. Ross led all Ohio State scorers on the night with 16 points and was joined in double digits by a trio of Buckeyes, including Smith (14), Craft (14) and Thompson (11).
"We talked about having to have that killer instinct and putting teams away," Thompson said. "On both sides of the ball, we did that."
Northwestern, meanwhile, was paced by star senior guard Drew Crawford, who scored 22 points in his Schottenstein Center finale, but the Wildcats were hampered by a 39.1 shooting percentage in the second half.
The first half saw the Buckeyes trail the Wildcats by as many as nine points as the two teams fought to an 11-11 tie in the opening seven minutes before a 14-5 Northwestern run gave the Wildcats a 25-16 advantage with 7:24 left on the clock. The Buckeyes bounced back with a 14-3 run of their own -- which included seven points from Ross -- before ultimately closing the stanza on a 21-8 stretch to take a 37-33 lead into halftime.
"We felt like we needed a run," Matta said. "We did a pretty good job of keeping our composure. Guys knew during the timeouts what they needed to do and went out and executed."
With Northwestern now in its rearview mirror, Ohio State will look to continue its winning ways when it returns to action for a 6 p.m. tip-off with Minnesota in Columbus on Saturday. The Buckeyes win over the Wildcats marked their fifth win the past six contests -- not bad for a team that appeared to be NIT-bound a mere month ago.
"I never felt like the sky was falling," said Smith. "It's a next-game mentality. We're not worried about that stuff. We just know that we have a tough opponent coming in here on Saturday in Minnesota and we gotta be ready to go."