Game Notes: Ohio State at Northwestern
Buckeyes barely avoid upset.
by Quinn Peterson
After seeing Northwestern get beaten up last week, one might have expected Saturday’s matchup with Ohio State — the No. 1 team in the country — to be a turbulent one, especially with leading scorer John Shurna out with a concussion. But the Wildcats held their own and took the Buckeyes down to the wire. In the end, however, OSU avoided the upset, pulling out a 58-57 win to remain the last undefeated team in nation.
“They find a way to win,” said Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody. “Give them credit for winning these close games. That’s what the best teams do.”
Northwestern took a page out of Wisconsin’s book, using the same patient and plodding offensive mentality that worked so well against them last Sunday to effectively control tempo against the top-ranked team in the country.
“We weren’t too sure if some of their bigger guys could play some of our guys if they just keep moving, and, you know, control with our offense. I thought we did a nice job. I thought we played pretty well, but not perfect,” Carmody reflected after the game.
Especially early on — but as would be the case for the entire game — all eyes were on leading Freshman of the Year candidate Jared Sullinger. The Buckeyes looked to get him going immediately and he obliged, scoring the team’s first two buckets in impressive fashion. On OSU’s first possession, he big-manned Northwestern center Luka Mirkovich, easily backing him down with two dribbles and finishing with a baby right hook; on the next play, he caught the ball at the top of the key, drove down the lane, spun and finished on the opposite side of the rim.
His skill-set was on display yet again when he ripped Northwestern forward Mike Capocci, hit a quick behind-the-back move and pushed the ball down the floor to finish with a dunk.
Despite their focus on execution, the Wildcats struggled finding the hole in the first few minutes, as the Buckeyes got out to a 10-5 lead. The precision would eventually pay off, though. Guard Drew Crawford was just 1-for-7 from the field in the first half, but his aggressive play earned him a handful of trips to the free throw line helping keep the Wildcats within reach. Senior forward Mike Capocci — who started in place of Shurna — also stepped up for Northwestern. He and Crawford combined for 13 first half points.
After a fast start, making his first three buckets, Sullinger’s play tapered off a bit, shooting just 1-for-6 the rest of the half. Credit the Wildcat defense as well, which did a good job of switching, sagging, helping and collapsing, gradually frustrating Sullinger.
“It was physical down there to say the least, but I thought Jared really kept his composure and handled himself really well,” said Matta.
The Wildcats also did a (surprisingly) good job on the boards, winning the first half rebound battle, 16-10, including six offensive.
Scrapping to stay in it, a Jershon Cobb three with 4:44 left in the half gave Northwestern their first lead of the evening. The Buckeyes calmly answered though, and went into the locker room with a 27-25 lead at the half.
Starting the second half on a 14-4 run, OSU shot out to a 41-29 lead and appeared ready to officially lay the hammer down on NU. Sullinger was back at it with six early points to lead a balanced Buckeye attack.
“The beginning of the second half was the difference when they jumped out on us,” said Carmody.
Northwestern continued to hang around however, and a Dallas Lauerdale intentional foul after a Juice Thompson three sparked a momentum shift that the Wildcats took full advantage of. In all it was a seven-point swing, capped off by a Cobb 3-pointer, cutting the Ohio St. lead to five.
“We had some spurts,” said Matta. “But give Northwestern credit, they never cracked. They just kept coming at us. They got a rhythm going.”
“I think I saw the first seven-point play,” he continued. “I thought that was a huge momentum force for them. It kind of got them back in the game”.
“It did a lot for us. I think it turned the game around and gave us the momentum,” said Thompson of the quick Wildcat run. “From there we just started getting more defensive stops, slowing the game down, getting it back at a tempo that we wanted to play at.”
While the Wildcats found themselves in foul trouble, Ohio St. was unable to capitalize from the line, leaving the door open for Northwestern to walk right through — and they did. Thompson drilled a three — one of several clutch plays he made — with 3:50 to go, giving Northwestern a 55-54 lead. Thompson’s three got Welsh-Ryan Arena rocking, but though the Buckeyes appeared to be on their heels, Matta opted not to call a timeout. Instead, he let his team come back down the floor, let Jon Diebler make his first three of the game, and then call time out.
Never did Ohio St. seem rattled. Some call it disinterest — Matta admitted that he was concerned with his team’s focus and concentration, — others call it poise.
Trailing by two, Mirkovich had an opportunity to tie it but jagged a wide open layup. Luckily for NU, William Buford turned the ball over on the ensuing possession, and Thompson hit a runner in the lane to notch things at 57.
After another OSU turnover, it was Northwestern ball with 46.2 seconds on the clock. The Wildcats looked to run their shot clock down as they had done all game, but errant Alex Marcotullio pass was picked off by David Lighty.
“We had the ball, had the opportunity there. We were just trying to get a good shot, use the clock up,” said Carmody. “Al [Marcotullio] thought he saw Jershon [Cobb] open on a backscreen for a layup and couldn’t get it. It’s discouraging, disappointing because you want to get the last shot in that situation — or a shot.”
Fifteen ticks to play; again, no OSU timeout. The Buckeyes went right in to Sullinger, who got fouled and split his pair of free throws, putting his team ahead by one.
A half-court heave by Crawford had the distance and briefly looked on target, but was wide left, hitting all backboard.
“It was definitely a good effort,” said Thompson. “A good team effort, I think we executed coach’s scouting report, but we just have to come back to practice, continued to work hard and learn from our mistakes. But there’s definitely a lot to take away from this game.”
Sullinger led all scorers with 21 points to go along with eight rebounds. Freshman point guard Aaron Craft was huge for the Buckeyes, as well, finishing with 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting. His decision-making throughout the evening was spectacular.
Thompson led Northwestern with 16. Capocci added 11.