With perhaps the toughest week of its regular season schedule awaiting it, Ohio State first took care of a road test at Nebraska on Feb. 2 with a 63-56 win over the Cornhuskers in front of 10,644 fans in the Devaney Center.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. scored a season-high 21 points, Deshaun Thomas had 15 and Aaron Craft added 14 points, six assists and six rebounds for the No. 11 Buckeyes (17-4, 7-2 Big Ten), a team that has now won four consecutive conference games.
David Rivers scored 13 points – including 11 in the second half – and Dylan Talley had 12 for the Nebraska (11-12, 2-8), who has lost the last seven games in a row against the Buckeyes, including all four the two programs played since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten before last season.
The No. 11 Buckeyes, however, toed the line between victory and upset closer than they would have anticipated after holding a 15-point lead with less than 10 minutes remaining in the game.
“We have to find a way to correct that,” said Craft, who has seen Ohio State let up after holding large advantages in the second half multiple times this season. “You’ve got to give them a lot of credit, too. They really picked up their intensity, especially on the offensive boards, and we didn't get adjusted to it.
“When it is all said and done, you've got to be happy with a road win in this league. We found a way to stay on top and finish with a win.”
The Buckeyes’ earned their biggest lead of the game at 53-38 when Craft hit a pair of free throws with 9:05 remaining, but the Cornhuskers went on a 15-5 run to cut Ohio State’s lead to five with two Rivers free throws with 2:40 remaining in the game.
During the Cornhuskers’ run, they had five offensive rebounds and scored and scored on two of them. In all, Nebraska had eight second chance points in the second half.
“We had a couple of careless possessions there that gave them easy baskets,” Ohio State had coach Thad Matta said. “Those things you can't do on the road. But we'll take whatever (the margin of victory) was, seven points. ... They’ve got the capability to kind of get rolling on you. You've got to be careful with them.”
Nebraska got a stop on the other end after cutting Ohio State’s lead to five. With a chance to cut the game to one possession, Brandon Ubel and Andre Almeida both missed shots in the vicinity of the basket, than Ubel missed a clean look from beyond the arc before the Buckeyes corralled the rebound.
Craft knocked down two free throws after being fouled to extend Ohio State’s lead to seven with 56.3 seconds remaining in the game, all but ending the Cornhuskers’ shot at the upset on their home floor.
“We can play with these guys and we can get to the top – it was close,” Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said. “I think we could've gotten it to three late if we just tip one in. Who knows what can happen then with a big crowd? We get another stop and who knows what can happen? It wasn't meant to be, but we know how close we were to maybe making a big play tonight.”
That run wasn’t the first time Nebraska fought back from a large deficit. The Buckeyes jumped out to a 12-3 lead in the first half, but the Huskers responded with a 16-5 run to take a 19-17 lead when Ray Gallegos knocked down a three with 6:10 remaining in the first half.
Like it did in the second half, Ohio State had a response. The Buckeyes immediately countered with a 13-0 run that was capped by a long three-pointer from sophomore LaQuinton Ross as the shot clock expired to open a 30-19 lead with 2:05 remaining in the first half.
That run helped the Buckeyes build a comfortable 32-23 lead at halftime.
Ohio State’s biggest advantage in the game came at the free throw line. OSU made 23 of 28 attempts from the charity stripe – including all 10 in the first half – while limiting Nebraska to 4-of-5 attempts. In the Buckeyes’ previous win over Wisconsin on Jan. 29, they never allowed the Badgers to reach the free throw line.
“I think it's how you play in terms of your style. They shot 26 threes, and we only shot 12 so we were playing two different types of basketball.”
The victory pulled Ohio State into a second-place tie in the Big Ten standings with top-ranked Michigan, who fell to No. 3 Indiana in a pivotal matchup in Bloomington shortly after the Buckeyes’ win. OSU and U-M are both one game behind Indiana.
Ohio State’s positioning in the standings will quickly change for better or worse, with looming matchups with Michigan and Indiana in the next week, starting with a trip to Ann Arbor on Feb. 5.
“There are some things we've got to work on, but we're 7-2 in the Big Ten,” Smith said. “We got the win. We did what we came here to do. But we've got to get better fast.”
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