COLUMBUS, Ohio - The Buckeyes have had to lean on experience throughout the Big Ten season but on Saturday night it was a pair of freshmen that made the difference when it mattered most. Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft each had 19 points apiece and combined for 12 assists as Ohio State (18-0, 5-0) held on until the final seconds to dispatch Penn State (10-7, 3-3), 69-66, in front of the first Buckeye sellout of the season.
The win should give the Buckeyes the No. 1 ranking in the nation on Monday when the new polls come out after Duke dropped a game to Florida State earlier in the week.
The Nittany Lions came into the game riding a two-game winning streak against ranked Big Ten foes with victories over Michigan State and Illinois. The Lions gave Ohio State everything that it could handle for the full 40 minutes of the game.
After the two teams went to the halftime locker room tied up at 32 a piece the Buckeyes knocked down back-to-back three pointers from William Buford and Jon Diebler to start the second half and would ultimately open up ten point lead before the first media timeout of the half. But as in past close games in the Big Ten the Buckeyes would see second half leads disappear and Penn State would take the lead with 2:53 left in the half after a Talor Battle steal of Craft and lay-up.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes that would be one of the few highlights for Battle who had a bad night shooting the ball going 5-17 from the field and 1-10 from beyond the arc. The rest of the Penn State team shot 20-28 from the field by comparison sake. Craft was asked to guard Battle and can take some credit for grinding Battle down to a near halt with a quiet 15 points.
"I might have been the reason and I might not have," Craft said. "We did a great job as a team defending him and we knew that he was going to have to have a real good game... as he goes they go. We did a great job as a team."
Offensively Craft was a force to be reckoned with and his 19 points eclipsed his career high of 12 points. Craft went 7-11 from the field and 4-6 from beyond the arc and the Nittany Lions eventually had to make the decision to respect Craft's shot more and that played into Ohio State's hands when it mattered the most.
"I was kicking it out because they were doubling off of Craft and what happened was that they stopped doubling because he went 4-6 from the three point line," Sullinger said. "He was hot tonight so they stopped doubling him and they gave me a chance to go through the middle."
Sullinger was held in check most of the way but when the Nittany Lions had to keep that defender on Craft the Buckeyes were able to see success inside with the freshman big man. After Buford drained a three pointer to put the Buckeyes back up a deuce with 2:38 to go it tuned into the Sullinger show.
Battle tied the game back up with a pair of free throws and then Sullinger was able to do his thing and draw the fifth foul of the game on Andrew Jones and convert on the three point play. Penn State would draw even once again with its own three point play (hoop/harm) but there was no answer for Sullinger who would put the Bucks up again with 14 seconds left with another bucket and foul.
Ohio State would sit with the 69-66 lead knowing that Penn State would have one last shot and more than likely the ball would go to Battle. The Buckeyes had several options on how to defend the final play and the talk of fouling Penn State to give it two free throws rather than a shot at a tying three pointer had been thrown around.
"I just figured at some point we just had to get a stop with the percentages," Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. "We had talked about fouling in the time out and I had actually drawn up where we wanted to foul and I just said screw it, we want to guard him."
Craft drew the assignment and Battle was not able to get off much of a good looking shot as time expired. The Buckeyes held on and survived yet another close game in conference play.
"(That is) life in the Big Ten," Diebler said. "We knew it was going to be a tough conference this year and there are no easy games be it at home or on the road. We can definitely learn from these."
Ohio State should assume the No. 1 spot in the polls for the second time under Matta. Ohio State's head coach joked about the pressure that comes with that ultimate target but also put it in a larger perspective as to what it means to the program as a whole.
"The thing that excites me the most is that it is the second time we have been there in a few years and I think it is great for the program," Matta said. "I don't know how many schools can say that they have been in that position and we are definitely one of them. I guess that is what makes me proud more for Ohio State and our basketball program. What comes with it? I don't know how much better of a shot we can get from teams."
The next team to give the Buckeyes that shot will be the Iowa Hawkeyes (7-9, 0-4), a team that Ohio State has already taken care of once in Iowa City (Iowa) 73-68. That game will be on Wednesday evening at 6:30 pm (EST) at Value City Arena before the Buckeyes head back out onto the road on Saturday to visit the Fighting Illini (13-5, 3-2).