INDIANAPOLIS — There’s something about Northwestern, something that inevitably leads to a hotly contested showdown. Whenever they’re scheduled to play the Buckeyes, they’re bound to clash.
On Jan. 29, the Buckeyes just barely hung on to a one-point lead and were able to secure the victory, 58-57. Two years ago in Evanston, Ill., then freshman Wildcat John Shurna drilled a last second 3-point attempt to give Northwestern the victory, 72-69.
Consider today’s contest the rubber match. It took extra basketball and a monstrous effort by two members of the dynamic freshman trio, but the Buckeyes were able to pull-off the victory, 67-61.
While the seniors, along with junior guard William Buford, struggled in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, freshmen Aaron Craft and Jared Sullinger had huge days.
“To come in here for their first Big Ten tournament and play at the level they played at, I looked out there at times and we had three freshmen on the floor,” coach Thad Matta said. “Thirty-two games into it, they’re pretty accustomed to just about anything.”
Sullinger had a gigantic performance on the glass, pulling in 18 boards to go along with his 20-point performance. His 18 rebounds were one shy of tying the Big Ten tournament record at 19.
“Towards the end of the game they kind of went small, especially in overtime,” Sullinger said. “So we decided to, because they had Shurna guarding me, and obviously Shurna has 60 pounds less than me, we started going to me from there and free throws are just mentality.”
Sullinger didn’t have a great day from the field, but the charity stripe was more than generous. Sully hit 16-of-18 from the line, including a perfect 10-for-10 in overtime.
“After practice we always shoot 25 and then after we break the huddle I shoot 25 more. I’ve been shooting free throws for the last two weeks after practice,” Sullinger said.
Not to be outdone by his star teammate, Craft also hit the glass hard, pulling in seven boards. It’s a good thing too, because the Buckeyes shot just 32 percent from the field, including 3-for-15 from beyond the arc for a 20-percent shooting percentage from deep.
When asked how he’s able to come up big in big games despite his inexperience at the college level, Craft deflected all attention onto his teammates and coaches.
“I’ve definitely benefited from the coaching staff we have, and the seniors we have,” Craft said. “They’ve always been there, no matter if we’re up or we’re down, in practice or in games.
The Wildcats like to slow down the tempo and force opponents to play their preferred style and pace, something they’ve used effectively in both games this season.
“It’s definitely something we knew they were going to do coming in. It was very successful the first time we played them, and it was pretty successful today,” Craft said.
Former Buckeye Clark Kellogg predicted strong play from the young Buckeyes early in the week.
“Craft, Sullinger and Thomas, all of them are special in their own way and they’ve done a marvelous job, all three of them,” Kellogg told The Lantern on Wednesday. “That’s who you’ve gone with all year, you can’t change that now. There is some pretty good, solid senior leadership to balance out whatever being a freshman might mean in the tournament. But those kids are unique; they’re competitive and talented.”