EVANSTON, Ill. — Lenzelle Smith scored a season-high 24 points, Deshaun Thomas added 19, and No. 16 Ohio State used a late run to beat Northwestern 63-53 on Thursday night.
The Buckeyes (21-7, 11-5 Big Ten) moved one-half game ahead of Michigan and took sole possession of fourth place in the Big Ten with another difficult win over a team that's given it fits in recent years.
This time, they led by 11 points early in the second half and regrouped after Northwestern took the lead, sending the Wildcats (13-16, 4-12) to their sixth straight loss and eighth in nine games.
Northwestern led by a point twice in the second half and was up 49-48 with about four minutes remaining. But Ohio State outscored the Wildcats 15-4 the rest of the way.
Thomas scored six points during that stretch, and the Buckeyes took advantage of three turnovers to come away with a tight win.
Smith scored 14 points in the first half and had five of Ohio State's 10 field goals, including four 3-pointers, as the Buckeyes grabbed a seven-point lead. He was 7 of 13 overall and hit 6 of 11 3s in the game, and the Buckeyes avoided another Big Ten upset after No. 1 Indiana lost to Minnesota and Penn State upset No. 4 Michigan this week.
They also took a step toward a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament. Securing one won't be easy with a trip to Indiana next week, and a home game against Illinois looming, but the Buckeyes did what they had to do in this one after squeezing by Northwestern two weeks earlier.
Tre Demps led Northwestern with 14 points. Dave Sobolewski finished with 13 after scoring a total of 12 in the previous three games, but Northwestern came up short again.
The Wildcats have lost eight straight and 19 of 20 against Ohio State, but the lopsided record aside, recent games have been close — particularly at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
A year ago, the Buckeyes needed escaped with a 75-73 win. In 2011, they were 22-0 and No. 1 in the nation, but they barely won, 58-57.
The game at Value City Arena this season was anything but a breeze, with Northwestern in control most of the way before Ohio State put together a late 12-point run to pull out a 69-59 victory.
Ohio State was leading 33-22 early in the second half when Northwestern went on a 12-3 run, with Demps nailing a 3 and scoring on a backdoor layup and hitting two free throws to make it a two-point game with 15:32 remaining. Northwestern took its first lead of the game midway through the second half when Kale Abrahamson hit a 3 to make it 41-40.
Thomas scored on a tip-in and Smith hit a 3 to make it 45-41, but the Wildcats hung in, tying it at 46 on Alex Olah's three-point play with 6:24 left.
After Thomas scored on a bank shot, Reggie Hearn buried a 3 for Northwestern, but Smith answered with one to put Ohio State on top 51-49. Craft stole the ball from Hearn before hitting a pull-up jumper for his first points of the game.
Smith stripped Demps, but Sam Thompson missed two free throws. Another turnover by Northwestern led to a layup by Thomas to make it 55-49, and Thomas scored again on a nice spin move with 1:24 left to get the lead back to six after Olah scored for Northwestern.