Lucky No. 20 For Men's Cagers

In a game that had as many ups and downs as a roller coaster, Ohio State pulled out its second close victory in as many games with a five-point win against Northwestern. The win meant the Buckeyes had accomplished a goal Thad Matta set for his team nearly three months ago.

Having just lost his team's most crucial player for the season, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta had to find a way to motivate his coaching staff.

One day after the Buckeyes lost junior forward David Lighty for the season with a fractured foot, Matta gathered his coaches for a 9 a.m. meeting. There, he drew the number 20 on the board and told his coaches that some way, some how, they would have to achieve 20 total wins during the regular season.

With the Buckeyes' 52-47 victory against Northwestern in the books, Matta and his coaching staff hit that benchmark.

The victory against the Wildcats on the final day of the regular season for the Buckeyes pushed the team's record to 20-9 overall with the Big Ten Tournament next on the slate.

"It's been a joke as we've been inching through this season," Matta said. "They're saying, ‘Remember the number you wrote.' That was the number that we thought it was going to be a heck of a run with Dave going down."

Like most of the season, the final outcome was in doubt until the final seconds. OSU sophomore swingman Evan Turner's pull-up jumper with 24.9 seconds put the Buckeyes ahead 50-47, but from there things would get interesting.

On its ensuing possession, Northwestern (17-12, 8-10 Big Ten) got the ball to Kevin Coble, who tried to draw a foul while shooting a three-point attempt. He failed on both attempts as his shot found only air, and the Buckeyes looked to have the victory assured. However, when OSU's B.J. Mullens was fouled after grabbing the defensive rebound, that marked just the fifth team foul for the Wildcats.

The final 11.9 seconds would feature four fouls, two timeouts and one crucial turnover that gave the Wildcats a final chance at victory.

After two Northwestern fouls put them at six team fouls, OSU's William Buford inbounded the ball to Turner, but the pass glanced off Turner's leg and went out of bounds and gave the visitors possession with nine seconds remaining.

The Buckeyes, with just four team fouls to that point, fouled Jeremy Nash with 7.0 left to disrupt Northwestern's offensive flow. The Wildcats maintained possession and got the ball to reserve Luka Mirkovic.

Entering the game 3 for 8 from three-point range on the season, Mirkovic's attempt found only air. OSU's Jon Diebler then hit two free throws to set the final score and cap a jam-packed final half minute.

The win is OSU's second in a row and third in its last four game, a streak that has come right after a three-game losing streak.

"It's never over," Turner said. "The game's never over. There's always key plays that can happen. That's the game of basketball. Sometimes you've got a little bit of luck. I think we're back on the right track."

It was Diebler who went from goat to hero in short order. Trailing by two, Northwestern's Michael Thompson launched a three-point attempt from the left wing as the shot clock buzzer sounded. Closing out on Thompson, Diebler was whistled for a foul as the ball whistled through the net.

Thompson hit the free throw, and the four-point play made it a 45-43 Wildcat lead with 3:35 left.

One possession later, Diebler caught the ball in the left corner. A head fake left Northwestern's Craig Moore flying through the air, and the Buckeye buried the three-pointer to put his team back on top, 46-45, with 3:15 left.

It was the tenth lead change of the game.

"I told Jon during one of the timeouts, I said, ‘Look I don't know when, where or how but you're going to get a golden opportunity. Be ready to knock down a big shot,' and he did," Matta said.

The Buckeyes looked set to run away with things early, but a cold streak helped turn what looked like a budding rout into a close game. The Wildcats called timeout with 10:52 remaining in the first half after a wide-open Jon Diebler canned a three-pointer to put the home team ahead 21-6, but the Buckeyes would not score again for more than six minutes.

Then, a Turner pull-up jumper from the top of the circle with 4:17 left stemmed a 9-0 Northwestern run and made it 23-15 in favor of the Buckeyes. In the final 10 minutes of the first half, the Buckeyes went 1 for 7 from the floor and turned the ball over four times as they struggled to penetrate Northwestern's 1-3-1 zone.

Starting with the Diebler three with 10:52 left in the first half, the Buckeyes scored just six points in the next 20:06 stretching into the second half. That period ended when a Buford jumper made it a 29-28 OSU lead with 11:50 left in the game, and the Buckeyes would score 23 more points the rest of the way including the Buford jumper.

Mullens went on a personal 8-2 run thanks to four alley-oop dunks courtesy of passes from Turner that took advantage of the fact that the 7-0 center was being guarded down low by players less than 6-0 in Northwestern's 1-3-1 zone.

"We've been practicing that all week," Mullens said. "They were guarding it pretty well."

Turner led the Buckeyes with 17 points and a game-high five assists, while Diebler and Buford each had 11 points and Mullens added 10. Moore led the Wildcats with 18 points on 6 of 15 shooting – all from three-point range.

The win pushed OSU's conference record to 10-8 in Big Ten play and guaranteed the Buckeyes a fourth or fifth seed in the league tournament.


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