Going into the Ohio State men’s basketball team’s matchup against Michigan, the Buckeyes had yet to be tested at home.
That changed Sunday.
The Buckeyes battled the Wolverines in front of a sold-out Schottenstein Center and emerged with a 64-49 victory.
Michigan jumped out first with a 5-0 run, but the Buckeyes quickly responded with a 7-0 run of their own to take the lead.
In the first half alone, there were seven lead changes and four ties. Neither team led by more than four points throughout the first half after Michigan’s initial 5-0 burst.
“We knew going in it was going to be a hard fought battle,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “We haven’t had those. We’ve had sizable leads going into halftime. Hopefully we’re a better team because of it.”
OSU sophomore forward Jared Sullinger picked up two fouls in the first half and was limited to just 12 minutes, but sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. did his best to make up for Sullinger’s presence on offense and on the boards.
With under five minutes remaining in the first half and OSU trailing 19-15, OSU sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas missed a 3-pointer, but sophomore guard Smith Jr. grabbed the rebound and finished inside.
On the ensuing Michigan possession, two Michigan players were in position to get an offensive rebound, but Smith Jr. leaped over his taller opponents to get the rebound and found Thomas streaking down the court for a layup. Thomas was fouled and made one of two free throws to cut the deficit to one.
After a timeout, it was Smith Jr. who put the Buckeyes back on top, 20-19, with a layup from the left block.
Smith Jr. said he was focused on doing the little things to help his team win.
“I knew that was going to be our edge, rebounding and just doing the little things,” Smith Jr. said. “I stuck to that early and just got myself in a position where I could get the rebounds.”
Smith Jr. had four offensive rebounds and seven total in the first half to go along with nine points.
Matta said Smith Jr. is a “jack of all trades” and his versatility causes problems for opposing defenses.
“Lenzelle is a winner,” Matta said. “He really understands his role.”
With just over a minute remaining in the first half the game was tied at 21, but a 3-pointer from the right corner by OSU senior William Buford gave OSU a 24-21 lead. That score held going into halftime.
The Buckeyes, who shot just 36 percent in the first half, started off the second half on a roll, connecting on six of their first 10 shots from the field.
With OSU leading 38-33, Buford intercepted a Michigan pass and finished on the other end with a one-handed jam. Buford fist-pumped and the crowd erupted in cheers.
The next OSU possession, sophomore guard Aaron Craft crossed over Michigan freshman guard Trey Burke, dove left, absorbed a foul, and finished with his left hand.
The sequence gave OSU a 42-33 lead and was part of a 14-2 run by the Buckeyes.
A pair of free throws by Deshaun Thomas gave OSU a 13-point advantage, but Michigan wouldn’t go away.
Three-pointers from Burke and sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. helped Michigan whittle down OSU’s lead back to seven.
But with under five minutes remaining, a Craft steal on the defensive end led to a Sullinger dunk in transition.
OSU continued to look for Sullinger offensively as the Buckeye big man converted two more buckets inside to give his team a 12-point lead.
Sullinger finished the game with 13 points and five rebounds.
The Wolverines never threatened again and OSU pulled away for the victory.
Smith Jr. led all scorers with 17 points and also added 12 rebounds, eight of which were offensive.
The win moves the Buckeyes into sole possession of first place in the Big Ten and improves their record to 19-3 overall.
But Sullinger refused to speculate on his team’s place in the standings.
“Game on Saturday against Wisconsin,” Sullinger said. “That’s the biggest focus right now.”
OSU next contest is Feb. 4 when the Buckeyes will travel to Wisconsin to take on the Badgers. Tip is set for 2 p.m.