Buckeye Blow Lead, Burn Wildcats on Final Play
By Brandon Castel
EVANSTON, Ill. — Aaron Craft didn’t know for sure the play was going to work, but he knew it had a chance.
With Ohio State and Northwestern tied at 73 in the always-tough Welsh-Ryan Arena, Craft saw the one thing he was hoping to see as he walked out of the huddle.
The Wildcats (17-12, 7-10) had just hit a dagger three from NBA range to stun the Buckeyes (23-6, 11-5), who were now in a tie game with seven seconds to play, but Craft wasn’t worried.
“When I went out there and they stretched their 1-3-1 I was kind of happy that they had a smaller guy down there on Jared,” he said.
“It made my job a lot easier and he did the hard part. He caught it and he made a great finish.”
Craft told Sullinger coming out of the timeout that he was going to the big man “no matter what,” and the play could not have worked more to perfection than it did Wednesday night.
With the arena still roaring from Alex Marcotullio’s deep three just seconds earlier, Craft caught the ball at the three-point line and threw a bullet to Sullinger on the right block. The All-American sophomore capped off a huge night by flicking a shot off the backboard for the game-winning basket with just two seconds to play.
John Shurna got one last look at the basket from halfcourt, but Northwestern’s star senior could not connect as the Wildcats felt the sting of heartache again on their home court, this time on Senior Day.
Northwestern has lost only four games in this building all year, once in overtime to Michigan and three times by two points or less, including Wednesday’s 75-73 loss to the Buckeyes.
“I think they are playing in an incredible conference and I think they're very talented,” Matta said after the game.
“I know this, I would hate on selection Sunday to draw them.”
Led by Sullinger, who rebounded from back-to-back single-digit scoring efforts with 22 points and 18 rebounds, the Buckeyes outrebounded Northwestern 44-18 in Wednesday’s victory.
They also shot 50 percent from the floor, while making 11 of their 16 free throws, but Matta said the rebounding margin doesn’t often tell the whole story against Northwestern.
“I think the thing that's a little bit misleading is that a lot of teams do that to Northwestern and don't win,” he said.
“I think if you look at the three-point shooting they had and do a great job taking care of the basketball, we felt going into the game, especially if they went with the 1-3-1, we could do a heck of a job on the glass.”
Sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr. got them started early with a pair of offensive rebounds and Deshaun Thomas added 10 boards for his second double-double of the season.
Craft even chipped in with 14 points, including a 4-of-5 night from behind the arc.
“The scouting report on him (Craft) was that you had to make him make shots and he did,” Carmody said afterward.
So did his teammates, as the Buckeyes shot over 59 percent from the floor in the first half. They led by double-digits for much of the game and held a 70-58 advantage with 5:39 to play in the game.
It looked like everything was going well for the Buckeyes, who were given new life by Michigan State’s 15-point loss to Indiana Tuesday night. But Northwestern was fighting for its life as well, and they were not going down without a struggle.
It didn’t help the Buckeyes that five of their 16 turnover came in the final 4:30 of the game, including three in the final minute.
Thomas extended OSU’s lead back to eight, at 73-65 with 3:08 to play, but Dave Sobolewski also connected from long range on one of Northwestern’s 13 makes from behind the arc.
“I wish we had given up more backdoor cuts in all seriousness because they want layups or they want threes,” Matta said.
“Tonight they got the threes on us.”
On the ensuing possession, Sullinger got caught in a double-team and seemed to panic after he did not get any help from his teammates. Sobolewski intercepted his errant pass and the Wildcats cut the lead to three on a pair of JerShon Cobb free throws with 46 seconds to play.
Smith, who finished with 12 points, three rebounds and a career-high seven assists, was called for a questionable walk at the other end, but it looked like the Buckeyes were going to escape after Reggie Hearn’s jumper fell short.
It was rebounded by Deshaun Thomas with 21 seconds on the clock, but Thomas had it poked away by Cobb and Northwestern called a timeout to set up the big three by Marcotullio.
To their credit, the Buckeyes didn’t panic, even after blowing a 12-point lead in the second half.
“We stuck together and we believed in each other and we came out with a win,” Craft said.
Now they need one more if they are going to tie Michigan State for the regular season Big Ten championship. They will have to do it on the Spartan’s home floor, as they travel to East Lansing for the season-finale on Sunday.
With the win, the Buckeyes did lock up a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
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