Jeff Barnett / Lantern photographer
Michigan arrived in Columbus not the least bit intimidated by the No. 1-ranked, undefeated Ohio State men’s basketball team.
The Wolverines stood toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes for most of the game Thursday night, but despite trailing at halftime, OSU showed exactly how it’s managed the second-best start in program history.
“Ohio State is really good,” Wolverine coach John Beilein said. “There’s a reason they’re undefeated.”
On the shoulders of freshman Jared Sullinger’s 10th double-double of the season, OSU (23-0, 10-0 Big Ten) bested unranked but feisty Michigan (13-10, 3-7 Big Ten), 62-53. Sullinger played all 40 minutes, scoring 19 points and grabbing 15 rebounds to lead the Buckeyes to victory.
OSU jumped out to a quick lead, beginning the game with a 7-0 run, but the Wolverines were in no mood to let the Buckeyes blow them out early.
A 3-pointer from junior guard Zack Novak tied the game at 14-14 with 11:39 to go in the first half. Four minutes later, a jumper from junior guard Stu Douglass gave the Wolverines their first lead, 20-19. The Buckeyes regained the lead, but back-to-back Michigan buckets to close the half put OSU down, 26-23, at the break.
It was just the fourth time all season the Buckeyes have been trailing at halftime, and they entered the locker room with 10 turnovers and shooting just 36 percent from the field.
“That’s not Ohio State basketball,” freshman point guard Aaron Craft said of the Buckeyes’ offensive struggles in the first 20 minutes. “That’s not what we’ve been doing all year to get us in the position we’re at.”
A basket from redshirt freshman forward Jordan Morgan gave the Wolverines a 30-24 lead early in the second half, but two 3-pointers from junior guard William Buford tied the game, 30-30, and ignited the sellout crowd at the Schottenstein Center.
With his first points of the game, senior forward David Lighty gave the Buckeyes a two-point lead with just less than 14 minutes remaining. The Wolverines quickly tied it, but a 7-0 Buckeye run, capped with a Lighty free throw, gave OSU a 44-36 lead with 9:37 to go.
Again, however, Michigan answered.
Back-to-back 3-pointers from freshmen Evan Smotrycz and Tim Hardaway Jr. cut the Buckeye lead to two. But Sullinger’s eight points over the next five minutes fueled a 10-3 OSU run that gave the Buckeyes a 54-45 lead, their largest of the game to that point, with less than three minutes remaining.
“In the second half we took our intensity to another level,” Sullinger said. “We know it’s Michigan, and we know they’re going to give us their best shot. On top of that it’s a rivalry, so we just had to take it to another level.”
After struggling through the first half, OSU shot 54 percent from the field in the second, and ended the game on an 18-9 run to earn the nine-point victory. Buford finished with 13 points, including three 3-pointers. Lighty and senior guard Jon Diebler added nine points apiece.
The win, despite the seemingly comfortable margin of victory, was yet another game that perhaps could have gone either way down the stretch. The close games, Buford said, are simply what comes with a No. 1 ranking and will only help the Buckeyes in the long run.
“We know every team is going to come after us,” Buford said. “We’re the No. 1 team in the country. They’re giving us their best shot, and we’re taking people’s best punches right now so when we get to the tournament we’ll be prepared.”
OSU coach Thad Matta is happy as long as his team keeps winning, regardless of how close the games are.
“It’s amazing, and I keep saying this just looking across college basketball,” Matta said. “There are great players, there are great coaches and to be sitting here today 23-0 and 10-0 in the Big Ten is something else.”
The Buckeyes travel to Minneapolis to play No. 18 Minnesota at 2 p.m. Sunday.