CHICAGO — With a little less than 33 minutes to go in the game, Ohio State appeared to be strolling through its first matchup in the Big Ten tournament.
That final 7:10 made the Buckeyes’ victory against Indiana anything but a walk in the park.
In a game that showed the highs and lows that Ohio State has endured throughout the season in one 40-minute span, the Buckeyes managed to come out on top with a 79-75 win despite being outscored 32-16 by the Hoosiers in that final 7:10.
It is a win that will likely give Ohio State enough to sneak into the NCAA Tournament, and it is mostly thanks to a pair of seniors who weren’t ready to play their final game.
Senior guard C.J. Jackson and redshirt senior guard Keyshawn Woods combined for 11 of the team’s 16 final points to keep Ohio State afloat during a barrage from Indiana’s offense, and finished with 35 of the team’s 79 points for the game.
In a game that head coach Chris Holtmann called one of the best he’s seen from the redshirt senior guard, Woods said he had something extra to play for.
“Definitely one of my better games as a Buckeye,” Woods said, “and I definitely wanted to play tomorrow.”
The pair of seniors did find help from sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson, whose impact following a three-game suspension was immediately felt on both ends, with 17 points and a career-high 13 rebounds.
But down the stretch, Holtmann went to the players he knew wanted to win the most. He especially relied on his 23-year old fifth-year guard.
“[Woods] was tremendous. I thought he was tremendous in every way,” Holtmann said. “I thought he’s looked, since the 10-minute mark of the Wisconsin game, like a guy that wasn’t ready to see his career over any time soon. And that’s what you hope in seniors.”
Ohio State had the defensive strategy it needed to make this game a blowout: forcing Indiana, the worst 3-point shooting team in the Big Ten, to 27 shots from deep, tying a season high.
It was playing like a team that is worthy of making the NCAA Tournament.
But then, up 20, it all nearly collapsed in the blink of an eye.
The Buckeyes were still forcing deep shots, except the Hoosiers started making them. Indiana hit its final six 3-pointers down the stretch and 13 of its final 17 shots overall.
While Ohio State held on for dear life on the defensive end in the midst of 13-0 and 7-0 runs that each occured down the stretch, it was Jackson who hit a 3 to end the first run, and Woods who hit a layup to end the second.
The big shots didn’t stop there. With Indiana within single digits, Jackson inbounded a pass to Woods with two seconds on the shot clock. Woods hit the jumper with the shot clock expiring to bring Ohio State’s lead back to 10.
Woods ended the night with 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists on 9-of-13 shooting, the most he has scored in a game since Nov. 15 against Creighton. Jackson finished with 17 points, 15 of which came in the second half, five rebounds and five assists.
The pair has not combined for that many points in any game this season.
For Jackson, if the Buckeyes, with a matchup against top-seeded Michigan State and beyond still left to boost their resume, does make it back to the NCAA Tournament, it will be his second time there.
But for Woods, it could be his first legitimate opportunity, after losing in an NCAA Tournament play-in game to Kansas State during his time at Wake Forest.
Still, the redshirt senior guard is far from satisfied, knowing what it means if Ohio State can pull off an upset against the Spartans.
“I hope we’re in,” Woods said. “But if we win tomorrow, I feel like we’re definitely in, we just gotta keep it going.”
Both seniors may not have had the seasons they wanted. Jackson’s points per game and shooting percentage have declined from a season ago, and Woods is averaging the fewest points per game in his collegiate career.
But for both players, they knew this could have been their final game with a loss to Indiana.
For both players, it was that added motivation that could punch their ticket come Selection Sunday.