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Sullinger Hoop Lifts Bucks Over NU

With a shot at a Big Ten championship on the line, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger would not be denied.

Jared Sullinger delivers win with 22 points, 18 rebounds at Northwestern

The OSU All-American, dogged this past week for his lackluster play, took a long lead pass from Aaron Craft, turned from the right block and hit a short bank shot with 3.1 seconds left to help the 10th-ranked Buckeyes escape Northwestern with a 75-73 win Wednesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston.

“This was, honestly, a great win for this basketball team,” said OSU coach Thad Matta. “To come on the road and get this win the way we did on a last-second shot, this is huge for us. I give our guys credit. We stuck together.”

Sullinger had been limited to single digits in scoring in OSU’s last two games. But at Northwestern, he had 22 points and 18 rebounds to lead the Buckeyes to the win.

“Going into this game, we felt like Jared could have a big game,” Matta said. “He was moving and doing a good job of taking advantage of what they were giving him. He was doing a good job of sealing. I couldn’t be happier with how he played.”

The win allows Ohio State (24-6, 12-5) a chance to play Michigan State (24-6, 13-4) for a share of what would be a third straight Big Ten championship on Sunday in East Lansing. Michigan (21-8, 11-5) can also get a share of the title with two wins and an OSU win over MSU.

The Buckeyes had struggled in losing three of their last five games. In this game, OSU led by as many as 13 points on several occasions. But Northwestern just kept chipping away in mounting its comeback.

NU’s Alex Marcotullio drilled a three with 7.7 seconds left to forge the game’s first tie at 73-73. After Sullinger’s dramatic shot, NU’s John Shurna missed a desperation three-pointer from just past halfcourt at the buzzer.

“I’ve been here the last eight years,” Matta said. “It’s unbelievable. It doesn’t matter if you’re up 10. Give Northwestern credit. They somehow catch fire unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. They have an uncanny ability to make shots against us. If they try and keep this team out of the NCAA Tournament, it would be a shame. They are a great team and such a difficult match-up.

“Every time we come up here, they make those kind of shots against us. We didn’t play smart down the stretch and we kind of gave it back to them. You have to defend these guys and just know they are going to make shots.”

Deshaun Thomas added 19 points and 10 rebounds for OSU. He and Sullinger were both 8 of 15 from the floor.

Aaron Craft chipped in 14 points and four steals, connecting on 4 of 5 three-pointers for the Buckeyes.

“That’s what he does,” Sullinger said of Craft. “He is a great point guard. When we need him to knock down shots, that’s what he does for us. He’s always there for us. We couldn’t ask for a better point guard.”

Lenzelle Smith Jr. had 12 points and seven assists for the Buckeyes.

“One guy who played an incredible game tonight was Lenzelle Smith,” Matta said. “Just his awareness and the assists he had, that was great to see.”

Matta was glad to see his team outrebound NU 44-18.

“We felt we had to get on the glass,” Matta said. “To outrebound them like we did, that’s what we needed.”

Northwestern (17-12, 7-10) has never reached the NCAA Tournament, although the Wildcats were included in all of the major bracket projections on Monday. A win over OSU would have cinched a Big Dance ticket for NU. Now, the Wildcats may need a win at Iowa on Saturday to cement their bid.

Drew Crawford led the Wildcats with 23 points. John Shurna, playing his final home game as NU’s career leading scorer, had 22 points for the Wildcats.

“John Shurna and Drew Crawford are great basketball players,” Sullinger said. “We knew we weren’t going to stop them the whole game. It happens. It happens on the road. On top of that, Northwestern was playing for its life."

Ohio State got off to a scorching start, hitting eight of its first nine shots from the floor. The Buckeyes took leads of 5-0, 11-2, 18-8, 26-15 and 37-24 on their way to a 39-29 halftime advantage.

“The big thing was to get the ball moving,” Matta said of his team’s fast start. “They went to the 1-3-1 and we did a good job of attacking it.”

Sullinger had 13 points and eight rebounds in the first half and Thomas added 12 points for OSU, which shot 59.3 percent from the floor (16 of 27) and outrebounded NU 21-5 in the first 20 minutes. The Buckeyes outscored the Wildcats 11-0 on second-chance points in the first half. Shurna had 13 of his team’s points in the first half.

Smith started strong for OSU with a driving layup and another layup off a loose ball. OSU then went ahead 11-2 after William Buford stuck a 17-foot jumper, Smith made 1 of 2 free throws and Craft canned a three off a Smith assist.

The lead went to 18-8 after Thomas completed a three-point play with 13:55 left in the first half. Northwestern rallied with Reggie Hearn hitting a three and making a reverse to cut it to 18-13 with 12:48 left in the half.

OSU hit the gas pedal again with Smith lobbing it to Sullinger for a layup before Sullinger tipped in a teammate’s miss for a 26-15 lead with 7:14 left. After NU’s Crawford hit a three, Sullinger answered with a foul line jumper and another tip-in for a 30-18 lead with 5:07 left in the half.

Shurna hit a pair of threes to cut it to 32-24 with 2:30 left. But Smith got a layup after a Sullinger offensive rebound and Thomas buried a three off a Smith assist for a 37-24 lead with 1:01 left in the half. Shurna canned a deep three with six seconds left to cap the scoring and cut the OSU halftime lead to 39-29.

OSU twice led by as many as 13 early in the second half. But Northwestern used its deliberate offense and sticky 1-3-1 zone defense to get some stops and gradually cut the lead. Crawford buried a three to get it down to eight at 46-38 with 16:57 left in the game. OSU’s Craft answered with a three of his own, though, just 16 seconds later.

Shurna then converted a Hearn rebound into a three to get it down to seven at 51-44 with 13:26 left. Again, Craft answered with a trey, this time off a Shannon Scott assist.

Northwestern kept coming and got it down to six at 56-50 after a rebound basket by Davide Curletti with 11:06 left. Crawford made 1 of 2 free throws with 10:05 left to get it down to five points at 58-53.

But Ohio State righted the ship. Smith and Sullinger each made a pair of free throws and Thomas got a layup off a Craft pass in transition to get it back to 11 at 64-53 with 8:05 left. Smith hit Buford with a lob for a layup that made it 66-54 with 7:17 left.

Northwestern kept lingering, though. Alex Marcotullio hit a three and Shurna made a pair of free throws to get it back down to seven at 70-63 with 4:48 left. OSU had turnovers on its next two possessions. The Wildcats made the Buckeyes play with Hearn hitting a back door layup to again get it down to five at 70-65 with 3:42 left.

OSU held the ball and Craft patiently got it to Thomas out top. Thomas had time to check the trademark on the ball as he drilled a clutch three to make it 73-65 with 3:08 left. NU’s Dave Sobolewski answered with a three to get it down to five at 73-68 with 2:42 left.

The teams traded missed shots before Sullinger was tied up after a defensive rebound and the ball went to NU with 56 seconds left. Sullinger then fouled JerShon Cobb on a shot attempt. His two free throws cut it to three at 73-70 with 47.1 seconds left.

OSU’s Smith was then whistled for traveling in the backcourt. NU’s Hearn missed a shot and Thomas rebounded it, but Cobb stole it back. NU called timeout with 17.6 seconds left to set up a play. The Wildcats worked the ball to Marcotullio, who eluded OSU’s Thomas at the top of the key and hit a high-arcing 24-foot three to tie it at 73-73 with 7.7 seconds left.

The Buckeyes called timeout with 7.3 seconds left. Craft took the ensuing inbounds pass and dribbled past midcourt. He threw a 35-foot lob pass to Sullinger, leading him toward the basket and away from his NU defender. Sullinger caught the pass, turned and easily laid the ball in over NU’s 6-4 Hearn for the game winning hoop with 3.1 seconds left.

“That’s where we wanted to go,” Matta said. “Aaron went full steam ahead and made a great pass. Jared had a smaller man on him and it worked out well for us.”

Sullinger added, “We just set up a play where it was just he and I on one side of the court. He said he was going to throw it up to me. I just caught it. He led me right to the spot to lay it in.”

Out of timeouts, NU inbounded quickly to Shurna. He turned upcourt and got past midcourt before unleashing a desperation three-point try. It glanced harmlessly off the rim and the Buckeyes celebrated their all-too-tough win.

Also Notable

* The Buckeyes improved to 14-1 in the last three years in games after losses. OSU hasn't had consecutive losses since defeats at Wisconsin and at Michigan in 2009-10 -- games the Buckeyes played without injured All-American Evan Turner.

* With the win, Ohio State clinched a first-round bye in next week’s Big Ten tournament.

* The recent losses had dropped OSU’s RPI ranking to 11th. But this road win over Northwestern (44th in RPI) could help the bottom line. OSU was 14th in strength of schedule coming into the game. This was OSU’s eighth win over an RPI top-50 team.

* OSU is now 6-4 on the road this season with previous wins at South Carolina, Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota and losses at Kansas, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

* OSU now leads the all-time series with Northwestern 111-45, including 45-31 in Evanston. OSU has won 10 of its last 11 trips to Evanston, dating to a loss there in 1998.

The Buckeyes have won six straight over the Wildcats and 23 of the last 24, dating to a 1998 loss at Evanston. The lone loss in that stretch was at Evanston in 2009 (72-69).

Under Thad Matta (since 2004-05), OSU is 13-1 against Northwestern. That includes a 6-1 mark in Evanston. OSU took a tight 58-57 win there last year.

OSU rolled 87-54 in the teams’ first meeting this season on Dec. 28 in Columbus.

* This was the 25th time in 28 games this season and 59th time in 65 career games Sullinger has scored in double figures. This was also his 30th career double-double and 12th such game this season.

* Thomas’ 19-point game marked the 37th time in his career he has scored in double figures. He has done it in 26 of OSU’s 30 games this year. He has been on a tear of late, scoring 25 at Michigan, 19 against Illinois and 23 against Wisconsin coming into this game.

* Smith reached double figures in scoring for the first time in eight games, dating to a 17-point performance against Michigan on Jan. 29.

* It was a tough night for Buford, who was 3 of 10 from the floor and finished with six points. But he also had six rebounds and four assists.

Buford now has 1,867 points in his career, good for sixth on OSU’s career scoring list. Buford is 12 points behind Michael Redd (1,879) for fifth place.

* In 12 years as a head coach, Matta now has a record of 316-94. He is 214-63 in eight years at OSU, including 114-46 in Big Ten games.

* The Buckeyes wrap the regular season at Michigan State Sunday (4 p.m., CBS). MSU has already clinched a share of the title and it will be senior day for Spartans star Draymond Green. MSU took a 58-48 win at OSU on Feb. 11.

* Click here for the box score.

Click here for Gus Johnson’s call of Marcotullio’s three-pointer on Big Ten Network.

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