If there’s one thing that Northwestern Coach Bill Carmody’s teams are known for from a Buckeye perspective, it’s forcing the Buckeyes into some uncomfortable contests. Tonight was no different as the Buckeyes were in very real danger of losing three straight games for the first time in almost four years. But Deshaun Thomas played with a determination late, and the Bucks used a 12-0 run to pull away in the final minute from Northwestern 69-59 in a game that was tied at 57 with three to go.
It starts with the Wildcats’ Princeton-like offense, which is deliberate, patient, and effective. For nearly the entire game, Northwestern ran a set that kept no players in the post for any extended period. Instead, it was essentially a four-across at the foul line from which they can use back cuts, reversals and flash-throughs, and high screens out beyond the three point arc to get clear looks from deep. The look is quite different, but the end game is almost identical to Wisconsin’s. Both three point heavy squads, the Badgers utilize sharp-shooting big men, while Northwestern’s prowess generally lies in their backcourt. The Wildcats weren’t just pulling up from three, however, they were shooting from NBA range and beyond with regularity. After a couple of backdoor plays for easy buckets, it was open season for the Wildcats who started launching from three. Northwestern’s trio of starting guards (Dave Sobolewski, Reggie Hearn, and Tre Demps) each added two treys in the first twenty minutes as the ‘Cats shot 50% in the first half and 6-of-14 from three.
The Buckeyes kept pace by hitting the offensive glass hard. Deshaun Thomas was just 2-for-8 in that first half, but his teammates were a surprising 50% (10-for-20) to pick him up. Lenzelle Smith Jr. provided that second scoring threat that has been on rotation in Columbus all season with 12 points in the half. The Buckeyes kept pace with the underdog Wildcats only by using their size and imposing their will inside. OSU won the boards by a 41-21 count, and the Buckeyes nearly outrebounded the Wildcats on the offensive glass alone, amassing 19 of them in the final count.
There have been several bumps in the road with the progression of sophomore center Amir Williams, but he was a true asset last night. Against a pair of freshman in the froncourt measuring just 6’7″ and 6’8″ in Kale Abrahamson and Mike Turner (Northwestern is down to just seven healthy scholarship players due to injuries and suspensions), Williams hit the glass hard and made his presence felt in the scoring column too. For the game, it was 10 points and 8 rebounds (five on the offensive end) in 22 minutes for the Detroit product. The Bucks had 34 points in the paint and 23 second chance points to go with those 19 offensive boards.
In addition to Williams, Shannon Scott bounced back from some quiet games with a 5 point, 7 rebound, 5 assist game that included a timely three-pointer to give his team the lead and a backboard-rattling block on a breakaway in chasedown style. Coupled with Sam Thompson’s 11 points, it wasn’t a bad evening overall for the crucial sophomore class, despite LaQuinton Ross going scoreless in 13 minutes.
Abrahamson for the Wildcats came out of the half firing and netted three triples in the first six minutes of the second, while Northwestern volleyed the lead back and forth as the Bucks got some atypical scoring from both Williams and Sam Thompson to keep pace. The Buckeyes would eventually trail 48-43 after a pair of turnovers turned layups with 12 minutes to go, their largest deficit since 22-16 in the first half.
In typical Big Ten POY candidate fashion, Thomas put the rough first behind him and got to work in the post. In the final 8:51 of the game, Thomas scored 16 of his 20 points and took the team on his back. With his outside shot not falling (0-for-5 from the three point land), Thomas drew an assortment of fouls, converting 10-of-12 foul shots. None was bigger than his shot fake that drew contact from an airborne Abrahamson that sent him to the stripe with his team down four. Where Thomas has struggled in past conference games to get the ball in the post with a defender draped all over him, there was little difficulty in doing so last night. Instead the difficulty came in the degree of shots where Deshaun had to just elevate over his defender and drop it into the hoop one-handed, never losing sight of the rim. His barrage began with a fastbreak dunk, a two-handed mega slam perpetrated following some chippy moments from both sides as the intensity and physical play ramped up. Said Thomas, “I had to post-up instead of being in the mid-post on the side. I played the five which I haven’t done since high school. Shannon [Scott] and [Aaron] Craft found me and I got some easy buckets.”
As strong of a game as Amir had, Coach Thad Matta made a change down the stretch, going with an incredibly small lineup for the final five minutes. That meant Aaron Craft left the floor for about one minute the entire game, while Shannon Scott grabbed 23 minutes for himself. The Bucks went with the two points, Smith Jr., Sam Thompson, and Thomas down the stretch, filling out their frontcourt with a pair standing at 6’5″ and 6’7″ to match the smaller and perimeter-oriented Wildcat bunch. Matta said about his team, “Our defense at the end was key. We challenged shots a little better and the game came down to us contesting shots. At the end of the game we had one of our best defensive lineups.” Carmody admitted the effect the smaller lineup had as well, “There were threes that we hit that were tough but then there were some threes that I thought weren’t so tough that we missed. I credit the defense for that. They tightened up, not that they weren’t playing hard before, but they really pushed up and did a nice job making it harder to execute your stuff.”
The final score doesn’t show how close this game was as we were tied at 57 with 3:31 to play. There were some wacky plays straight out of a witch doctor’s spellbook. First, with just under 2:30 to go and the shot clock winding down, Hearn for Northwestern drove past Smith Jr. to the hole where he tossed up a rushed and awkward shot. It rolled up onto the back of the rim and nearly came to rest, pausing for a moment before changing momentum and falling back off the left side of the rim from where it came. The Bucks gathered possession instead of a possession arrow decision that would’ve went Northwestern’s way. Instead the Bucks took that possession and Aaron Craft weaved his way through three defenders for a layup and a four point lead.
Next, whatever Sam Thompson concocted and put on display in that open court showcase had to involve some kind of deal with the devil. A set of back-to-back dunks sealed victory for the Bucks, stretching the lead from six to ten, but the second one was truly special. Thompson went the 360-degree variety in the second slam, showing off for the student section that embraces his slams and aerial game. It cemented Northwestern’s 32nd straight loss in Columbus, dating back to 1977.
Next on the docket, the Buckeyes head to one of the toughest environments in the conference to try and bring home a W and keep the conference title hopes alive. On Saturday afternoon, they’ll be in Madison to take on Bo Ryan’s Badgers. For the second straight weekend game, they’ll be getting a ranked team fresh off a heartbreaking loss.
(Photo: Paul Vernon/AP)