For an hour and a half in Columbus on Tuesday night, Northwestern had held off Ohio State. The team had hit timely shots, gotten stops when it needed, and answered every Buckeye run. But in crunch time, the Wildcats crumbled under the hosts's full-court pressure, and their 39-year winless streak in Columbus will continue on a 71-63 loss.
The story of the first half was Northwestern's offense. The Wildcats didn't necessarily do anything systematically different, but shots were falling.
Even on the opening two possessions of the game, when Tre Demps and Bryant McIntosh hit threes, the effect of Ohio State's athleticism was apparent. The Wildcats couldn't get anything going to the basket. The threes were the Wildcats' only points in the game's opening 6 minutes, and Ohio State took an early 9-6 lead.
Northwestern's defense allowed it to take control of the game though. Playing their hybrid "Chameleon" defense, the Wildcats held Ohio State to 2 points over a nearly 6-and-a-half-minute stretch. Meanwhile, the Wildcats' offense continued to look choppy, but Demps, McIntosh and Aaron Falzon hit 6 of their first 10 combined threes. Falzon's second, from the corner, gave Northwestern a 24-14 advantage, and forced Thad Matta to take a timeout with 6 minutes remaining in the half.
Ohio State seemed to find its offensive rhythm late in the half, but this time Northwestern's frontcourt kept up. A Joey van Zegeren tip-in and an Alex Olah jumper allowed the Wildcats to take a 33-26 advantage into the locker room.
McIntosh came out of the halftime break feeling it. He hit his third and fourth three-pointers of the game — one a deep bomb with a hand in his face — and Northwestern was able to keep Ohio State at arm's length early in the half. Helping McIntosh out was fellow sophomore Scottie Lindsey, who came off the bench to score 5 quick points early in the second period. He hit a three in transition and then a floater in the lane, and Northwestern took a 44-37 lead into the under-12 timeout.
Midway through the second half though, Ohio State made its charge. The Buckeyes went on a quick 6-0 spurt to get to within 3 points at 48-45. Chris Collins then appeared to want his team to call timeout after it advanced the ball past half court. With Ohio State extending its defensive though, Tre Demps caught a press-breaking pass, and rather than call time, he attacked. His kick-out was deflected by Marc Loving, and Ohio State went the other way for an easy layup. Collins then got his timeout with his team's lead cut to 1 at 48-47.
The timeout couldn't halt the charge though. Gavin Skelly's turnover coming out of it was NU's third straight. McIntosh did his best, and Lindsey hit another big long-range shot, but Ohio State began to dominate the game physically. The Buckeyes' three-quarter-court 1-2-2 press gave Northwestern fits, and they took a 61-56 lead on two Kam Williams free throws with 2:40 to play.
The shots that were falling for Northwestern early simply weren't in the second half. From the 10:27 mark in the second half until the final minute of the game, the Wildcats scored just 10 points. They failed to make the Buckeyes pay for extending their defense.
On the other end of the floor, Ohio State began to will itself to the rim and put pressure on NU's defense. Even before the Wildcats started fouling intentionally, the Buckeyes — a 65-percent free throw shooting team — got to the line. They took 12 free throws in the game's final 2:40, and hit all of them. Thad Matta's team pulled away late and won 71-63.
Ohio State's athleticism affected Northwestern
Bryant McIntosh was effective, as was Scottie Lindsey in bursts, but they were effective as individuals. The unit as a whole wasn't, and McIntosh and Lindsey barely got any help in the second half. Northwestern didn't have much success in pick-and-roll situations, and couldn't get anything going to the basket. It made just 9 two-point field goals the entire game. Three-point shooting wasn't the problem, as it was during the five-game losing streak. This was about getting quality shots. Especially during Ohio State's second half run, Northwestern couldn't find any.
A second time Ohio State's athleticism reared its head was when Northwestern tried to break the press. Matta knew his team had a length advantage, and by employing 6-foot-7 forward Keita Bates-Diop at the top of the press, the Buckeyes forced a lot of Northwestern turnovers and even a 10-second violation. Even when McIntosh and Demps did manage to break the press, the time it took them to do so — usually almost the full 10 seconds allowed — cut significantly into the number of good looks the offense produced. Northwestern constantly found itself having to fire up contested shots as time was running down on the shot clock.
The defense was, at times, effective
During Northwestern's five-game losing streak, its defense was done in by penetration and off-ball movement. At times, the Wildcats' breakdowns were rather simple, but they were also often fueled by a lack of defensive talent. Northwestern couldn't contain drivers such as Indiana's Yogi Ferrell.
Ohio State doesn't have the same caliber of guards as Indiana, Michigan State and Iowa though. The Buckeyes couldn't pull the strings on NU's defenders this way and that by penetrating, and thus NU's defense remained relatively solid. When the Buckeyes made their run late in the second half, it was often a case of the Buckeyes' physical strength overpowering the Wildcats.
This was a game that Northwestern could have used as a springboard to the postseason. Coming into it, NIT hopes were very real. A win might have even put NU squarely on the bubble. But this loss pushes the Wildcats further away from the postseason, and opportunities for semi-quality wins are dwindling.