COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It may have came 31 minutes later than he would've liked it to, but Valentine's Day still gave Deshaun Thomas the opportunity to do what he loves to do most: score.
The Ohio State forward posted a game-high 22 points- 17 of which came in the second half- leading the No. 13 Buckeyes (18-6, 8-4) to a 69-59 win over Northwestern (13-12, 4-8) on Thursday. Tied with the Wildcats with fewer than four minutes remaining in the game, OSU needed that type of effort from its leading scorer in order to avoid a third consecutive loss.
"It was good to see, because he was struggling to shoot the ball early," Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said of his star player. "Guys found him, guys did a good job of getting it in there."
With Thomas starting off the game on a 2-of-11 cold streak, the Buckeyes trailed for a seven-minute stretch in the second half against a Northwestern team that made 11 of its 26 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc. The Wildcats, however, only managed to stretch their lead to as many as five points with nine minutes remaining in the game, which wasn't enough to to tame Thomas once he got rolling.
"They made shots, they was knocking down shots," Thomas said of Northwestern. "One thing I showed at the end was a lot of maturity. My name was called, my teammates needed me, I executed real well and got it done."
One person who was able to help settle the Indiana native was classmate and Buckeyes' point guard Aaron Craft, who counseled Thomas as he argued with the referees after a questionable jump-ball call that the OSU junior felt should have been a foul. From there, the Big Ten's leading scorer rattled off six straight points and 15 in the final nine minutes as the Buckeyes closed the game on a 12-2 run.
"If it wasn't for (Craft) calming me down, I don't know what would've happened. I'd probably lose my mind," Thomas said. "It's just all me growing up, knowing that when the shots not falling, I know I've got guys who are going to get me the ball in the right spot."
After a back-and-forth first half that saw six lead changes, the Buckeyes appeared to finally edge the Wildcats, thanks to an Amir Williams dunk with three seconds remaining in the period. True to its pesky nature, Northwestern answered back when Tre Demps successfully heaved a 40-foot three-point shot to tie the game heading into halftime.
"We knew that we had a ballgame. They was hitting shots," Thomas said. "We knew that they weren't going to back down for anybody. They played like they didn't care."
That showed in the second half, where the Buckeyes looked sluggish and the Wildcats looked poised for an upset in the first 11 minutes of action. Once Ohio State regained its composure and went on its game-winning run, Craft said that it was ultimately the Buckeyes' defense that was their key to success.
"We were talking about trying to get consecutive stops," Craft said. "We went through a stretch where we were really trading baskets. At a point they were getting threes and we were getting twos and that's always not very helpful when you're trying to win a basketball game."
With the win, Ohio State now sits two games back of first place in the Big Ten, trailing Indiana and Michigan State, each of which has earned a 10-2 record in league play this season. The Buckeyes will return to action on Sunday, when they hit the road for a 1 p.m. tipoff with Wisconsin (17-8, 8-4).
"In today's day and age, this is a heck of a win for us," Matta said of his team's latest victory. "It's strap it on, and here we go on Sunday."