The non-conference portion of the schedule went as smoothly as it probably could for the Ohio State men's basketball team. Thirteen games resulted in 13 wins for the No. 3 Buckeyes.
Play in what is perhaps the nation's strongest conference started Tuesday, and for Ohio State, it began in West Lafayette against Purdue.
The contest against the Boilermakers was rough in stretches, but game 14-game one of the Big Ten season-equaled win No. 14 for Thad Matta's squad.
"I think this. Got to give our guys a ton of credit. I told them after the game, we did a great job answering a lot of runs by Purdue," Matta said.
Behind the defense and playmaking ability of Aaron Craft, and the scoring prowess of LaQuinton Ross, Ohio State (14-0) beat Purdue (10-4), 78-69, at Mackey Arena.
Leading by one point at half time after Lenzelle Smith Jr. spun in a layup at the buzzer, Ohio State went small at about the 12-minute mark in the second half, and began to pull away.
Facing A.J. Hammons, one of the most talented centers in the country, Ohio State's big men, Amir Williams and Trey McDonald, struggled and got in foul trouble. So Matta, for most of the second half, used a lineup that featured Craft, Smith, Shannon Scott, Marc Loving and LaQuinton Ross. The fivesome thrived.
"We kind of knew going in, we didn't know if Amir Williams was going to play or not," Matta said. "So we had kind of gone with the mindset of, we're going to have to dig it out."
The defense picked up, the Buckeyes got out in transition, and Craft started to find open players on the wings. After struggling from deep in the first half, Ohio State started to make shots in the second. Scott and Loving each hit two three-pointers in the contest.
Playing in a true road environment for the first time since an early November win at Marquette, it was Craft that got Ohio State going early on. If the rosy-cheeked guard's career had to be summed up in one play, that play may have occurred midway through the first half.
Craft contested a Purdue three-pointer in the corner. Leaving his feet, he fell out of bounds as the shot went up. As the ball bounced off the rim, Craft jumped back in bounds, grabbed the long rebound, and sped down court for a coast-to-coast layup.
No singular player shouldered much of the scoring load for the Buckeyes early on, but it was Craft, who had seven first-half assists, who seemed to be involved on nearly every offensive possession.
Defense and rebounding were issues for the Buckeyes in the first 20 minutes. Hammons had his way with Williams and McDonald, scoring nine points and grabbing nine rebounds in the first half. Ohio State allowed a bevy of offensive rebounds-nine, to be exact-to a bigger Boilermakers squad.
The defense and rebounding picked up in the final 20 minutes.
Perhaps most intriguing, though, was the play of Ross.
Ohio State has lacked a go-to scorer for most of the season. It didn't today. Ross was clearly the alpha dog on offense for the Buckeyes down the stretch. He finished with 25 points and 12 rebounds, often playing the five position with Williams and McDonald on the bench with foul trouble.
"I keep saying this. He's got a great engagement about him. He's understanding the offense a lot better. He's being patient. And he's being aggressive. I think that's one of the biggest things," Matta said.
Scott and Smith chipped in 18 points and 14 points, respectively. Craft finished with seven points, eight rebounds, and 10 assists.
For Purdue, Hammons led the way with 18 points and 16 rebounds.
Ohio State next faces Nebraska Saturday in Columbus.