INDIANAPOLIS — Every twist seemed to put No. 24 Ohio State on the verge of closing out Thursday’s Big Ten tournament game.
Every turn put the defending tourney champs right back on the verge of becoming the victim of a stunning first-round upset.
After LaQuinton Ross and Aaron Craft combined for nine points during a key second-half spurt, No. 24 Ohio State still needed Terone Johnson to miss a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to hang on for a 63-61 victory over struggling Purdue.
“It’s finding a way,” Craft said. “It doesn’t matter how ugly a game is at this point, it’s about trying to find a way to keep playing and luckily we were able to do that again.”
Little has gone right lately for the Buckeyes (24-8).
In their last trip to Indiana, March 2, they managed only one basket outside of about 10 feet and went 0 for 11 from 3-point range. On Thursday, back in the Hoosier State for the first time since that dreadful performance, they were only slightly better. Ohio State shot 35.9 percent from the field, made five shots outside the paint and after missing their first six 3s finished 1 of 14 from beyond the arc.
The more troubling trend has been closing things out.
After starting 15-0 and being ranked as high as No. 3, the Buckeyes are just 5-3 in their last eight, 2-2 in their last four and the way they finished Thursday, against a team that ended the season with seven straight losses, probably won’t help their case with the NCAA’s selection committee.
Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. both missed free throws in the final 15 seconds, shots that could have made it a two-possession game and sealed the win.
So the Buckeyes tried to win it another way — by fouling Purdue’s Ronnie Johnson in the backcourt to prevent the Boilermakers (15-17) from even attempting a 3 that could have forced overtime.
Johnson made the first, missed the second and the Boilermakers were awarded possession on the rebound with 1.2 seconds to go after a lengthy replay review. Johnson’s older brother, Terone, got a good look from the left wing but the shot came up short and the fifth-seeded Buckeyes somehow survived. They’ll face fourth-seeded Nebraska in Friday’s quarterfinals.
“Hopefully those games that we played earlier in the year helped us get to this point, especially if we get in another game like that,” Craft said.
Ross finished with 19 points and 15 rebounds, Craft added 16 points and Smith Jr. scored nine to become the 26th player in school history with 1,000 career points.
Few expected the short-handed Boilermakers (15-17) to be this competitive in their final game of the season.
Purdue, the No. 12 seed, is not eligible for the NIT and has already said it won’t accept a bid to a smaller tournament. But the Big Ten’s No. 12 seed showed some true grit.
Despite getting into early foul trouble, the Boilermakers hung around throughout the first half and only trailed 30-27 at halftime. And despite losing guard Sterling Carter with a season-ending injury to his right knee in late February and forward Jay Simpson with a career-ending heart condition last week, the Boilermakers refused to go away even after freshman guard Basil Smotherman needed help getting to the bench after hurting his right leg early in the second quarter.
Instead, the Boilermakers hung with Ohio State down to the final buzzer.
“We knew there was one second on the clock so I could have a dribble. I thought I had enough space to get the shot off to win the game. It looked good when it was going up,” Terone Johnson said. “I really couldn’t see if it went in or not, but I missed.”
A.J. Hammons finished with 15 points and nine rebounds, Ronnie Johnson had 12 points and Terone Johnson scored 10 in his final game with the Boilermakers. It was almost enough.
Craft and Ross started the key run and when ended the spurt ended with Sam Thompson’s alley-oop dunk, the Buckeyes led 59-54. Purdue answered with four straight points to make it 59-58 and were back within 61-60 when Hammons scored on a layup with 18.1 seconds left.
After the two missed free throws, the Boilermakers had one last chance but the Buckeyes hung on.
“It’s good to see us win one of these ugly games,” coach Thad Matta said. “We didn’t play as well as we wanted to today and give Purdue all the credit for that. (Our) guys made some plays down the stretch and we were able to get out of here with a win.”