COLUMBUS — With the game on the line, Ohio State played like a No. 1 team.
That's exactly what they might be soon.
Freshman Jared Sullinger scored 19 points and hit a three-point play with 13.2 seconds left to lift the second-ranked Buckeyes to a 69-66 victory over Penn State on Saturday.
On the heels of top-ranked Duke's 66-61 loss at Florida State on Wednesday night, the victory will likely propel the Buckeyes (18-0, 5-0 Big Ten) to the No. 1 spot in next week's rankings.
"If that does happen, the thing that excites me the most is that's the second time we've been there in a few years," said coach Thad Matta, whose 2006-07 Buckeyes ended the regular season as the top-ranked team. "I think it's great for the program. I don't know how many schools can say that they've been in that position. We're definitely one of them."
Fellow freshman Aaron Craft also had 19 points, a career-high, to go with seven assists and brilliant defense against Penn State (10-7, 3-3) star Talor Battle. Battle's 3-pointer with 2 seconds left came up well short of extending the game.
Battle, the Big Ten's leading scorer at 20.9 points a game, hit just 5 of 17 shots from the field and only 1 of 10 behind the arc while scoring 15 points.
"I mean, I might have been the reason, I might not have, but we did a great job as a team defending him," said Craft, who had never scored more than 12 points before. "I don't know if it was as much me as his shots not falling. That would frustrate most people. He had some pretty good looks too."
Still, it was Battle who flicked away a pass from Craft and then scored on the layup, putting Penn State up 61-60 with under 3 minutes left.
Seconds later, William Buford, who had 13 points, made a 3.
The capacity crowd booed with 1:12 left when Battle, isolated on Craft, drove the lane and lost his footing but benefited from a call against Craft. The two foul shots tied it at 63.
The Buckeyes went back inside to Sullinger on the ensuing possession, with the big guy hitting a half hook while being fouled by Andrew Jones — his fifth. The freshman then completed the three-point play for a 66-63 lead.
Penn State responded again. Battle's 3-point from the left wing was short, but David Jackson, who finished with 19 points, got the rebound and put it back in while being fouled. His free throw with 43.2 seconds left knotted things once again.
Ohio State worked the ball patiently around the perimeter, twice throwing it into Sullinger on the low block with him tossing it back once.
"On the last one, I told him, 'Don't try to draw the contact, just make the shot,'" Matta said. "As only Jared can do, he did both."
The second time Sullinger got the ball, he rolled across the middle of the lane and flipped up a shot that fell while a foul was called. He again hit the foul shot.
"I had a chance to go to the middle instead of always going to the baseline," said Sullinger, a burly 6-foot-9. "I was able to capitalize on that."
It was Craft's shooting earlier in the game that made it possible for Sullinger to work 1-on-1.
"You have to pick your poison and who are you going to leave open? I don't want to leave those other guys," Penn State coach Ed DeChellis said, referring to Ohio State's other perimeter threats. "So we tried to leave [Craft] and he made some shots tonight. If he misses some shots, then maybe it's a different story. Give the kid credit."
The Nittany Lions hurried down court and then gave the ball to Battle. Without a pick, he pump-faked and then let go of a shot that came up short of the mark as the buzzer sounded.
"That's a situation where you can only get one shot, you can only do so much," Battle said. "By the time I got control of it, I looked up at the clock and there were 3 seconds left. So I didn't have time to rock the kid and try to get off a clean shot. I had to shot-fake and step through and it was not a very good look."
Now the Buckeyes appear poised to take over the top spot in the polls.
"It's really early, but we're very talented," said senior guard Jon Diebler, who added 10 points.
"We can be a very good basketball team. It's hard to tell if we're No. 1 or not. We're just going to try to get better every day and we're not going to really worry about the rankings."