Ohio State (15-5, 4-3) was sluggish early, falling behind the Wildcats (10-9, 1-5) 8-0 and not taking their first lead until 14 minutes had ticked off the clock. But the Buckeyes responded to earn a 69-67 road win in Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Matta elected to start freshman Jae’Sean Tate, who has been the Buckeyes best energy guy off the bench, for Marc Loving while also inserting Anthony Lee for Amir Williams. Williams had started the previous 79 games in which he was healthy.
The changes didn’t help. Ohio State once again started slow, falling behind by double digits in the first half for the sixth time this season. Northwestern connected on their first four shots, building an 8-0 lead. Lee finally got the Buckeyes on the board nearly three minutes into the game, but the energy issues continued.
When the Wildcats were missing shots, which wasn’t often early, they were pulling in offensive rebounds. Northwestern hauled in four of their first six misses, a charge led by 7-foot center Alex Olah.
Back-to-back threes from D’Angelo Russell got the Buckeyes going, cutting the lead to 16-10 with 12:33 remaining. The Wildcats got offensive rebounds on their next two possessions and extended the lead to 21-10, their largest of the game, with 11:25 remaining.
A Matta timeout was shortly followed by the media timeout, allowing the Buckeyes to regroup. To that point, seven Northwestern players had scored to just two Buckeyes and the Wildcats were outrebounding Ohio State 10-6.
From there, the Buckeyes got back in things. A midrange jumper from Russell started a 10-point OSU run, one that featured back-to-back baskets from Tate, another jumper from Russell and a put-back dunk from Trey McDonald.
That run drew the Buckeyes within one, but after the team’s traded turnovers on four straight possessions, Olah ended a 4:21 scoring drought for the Wildcats. The sloppy play continued, but Ohio State got its first lead of the night on a Thompson jumper with 6:05 before the break, giving the Buckeyes a 24-23 edge. A three-point play from Thompson extended the lead to four and the teams traded baskets to close the half with Ohio State leading 38-34.
Ohio State went just 4-of-13 to start the half, but hit 12 of their final 18 attempts to take control of the game, at least briefly.
The Buckeyes flipped the script on the first half, connecting on their first four attempts after intermission. A three by Russell, one of six he hit on the night, extended the Ohio State lead to 47-38 and prompted a Northwestern timeout with 16:49 remaining.
Tre Demps responded with a three out of the timeout and Olah beat Lee inside to keep Northwestern within striking distance at 47-43. It appeared the Buckeyes were prepared to run away with things as Thompson connected on a floater before getting a block on the Wildcats next possession. A lefty bank-shot from Lee and a Russell three extended the Ohio State lead to double digits for the first time on the night at 54-43.
The Buckeyes went to their run-stopper, and Russell responded with a smooth midrange jumper. He connected on a jumper again on the next possession following a Scott offensive rebound. That brought the Buckeyes lead back to six with under seven minutes remaining.
Demps free throws and a three from Jershon Cobb knotted the score at 60, but again, Russell answered. The freshman drilled a three, his seventh consecutive made shot. He finally missed on the next possession, but Scott chased down Demps for a transition block.
Russell hit a three on the following possession, his tenth straight point for the Buckeyes. That gave Ohio State a 66-60 advantage with 1:47 left. Northwestern got it back to a one possession game with 7.9 seconds left thanks to four missed free throws in the final minute by Ohio State.
Russell finally created the necessary separation. The freshman hit a pair of free throws before a desperation three from Demps banked home. Russell connected on another free throw, the only Ohio State makes from the line in the second half, to reach the final margin.
It was all a part of an extremely efficient night from Russell. The freshman led all scorers with a career-high 33 points and needed just 17 shots to do so. He dished out six assists and hauled in seven boards and did not turn the ball over.
Thompson chipped in 11 for the Buckeyes, the only player aside from Russell in double figures. Tate scored four points in his first start, but had five rebounds and a number of hustle plays. Lee didn’t miss a shot, connecting on all four of his attempts for eight points.
Olah led Northwestern with 16 points and six rebounds.
The close win continued a recent trend for the Buckeyes as their last four victories at Welsh-Ryan Arena have come by a combined 15 points.
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