WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — No. 3 Ohio State relied on a rare commodity to derail Purdue's young shooters Tuesday.
LaQuinton Ross finished with 25 points and 12 rebounds, both career-highs, and Shannon Scott added a career-best 18 points to help the Buckeyes pull away for a 78-69 win at Purdue — a victory that kept Ohio State among the shrinking group of teams that will take a perfect record into 2014.
"I thought down the stretch our veterans were as good as they could be," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
It's an unusual luxury for Ohio State, which has seen a regular parade of underclassmen leave early for the NBA draft. The list includes Greg Oden and Mike Conley to Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas.
Things are different this season. The Buckeyes have started the same two seniors and the same three juniors in all 14 games, so when things got tough in Tuesday's Big Ten opener, the older Buckeyes buckled down and came up big every time Ohio State needed a play.
Ross and Scott, both juniors, combined for all of the points in a decisive 10-2 second-half run that finally gave Ohio State some breathing room. And, of course, the wily Aaron Craft continually turned Purdue miscues into game-changing moments. Craft finished with seven points, eight rebounds, 10 assists and four steals against a team came into the game with four of the Big Ten's top 10 freshman scorers, two of the league's most dangerous sophomores and a perfect 8-0 record on their home court.
"Ten assists and zero turnovers speaks for itself," Purdue coach Matt Painter said after losing to the Buckeyes for the fourth straight time. "He gets eight defensive rebounds, and he's able to affect the game without scoring. There are not a lot of guys who can do that today, especially when they're 6-foot-2."
The combination has the Buckeyes (14-0, 1-0) rolling.
Ohio State started the day as one of the nation's eight remaining unbeaten teams. It left Mackey Arena with the fifth-longest winning streak in one season in school history and the school's best start since going 24-0 in 2010-11, and the Buckeyes did that on a day they shot 44.6 percent from the field, went 4 of 22 on 3-pointers and were outrebounded 46-37.
Instead, the Buckeyes dug down defensively.
Yes, Purdue sophomore A.J. Hammons produced one of the most complete games of his career. He finished with a season-best 18 points, 16 rebounds and four assists, both career highs, and five blocks. Another sophomore, Ronnie Johnson, had 16 points and Johnson's older brother, Terone, finished with 13 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
But the Buckeyes suddenly staunch defense still made it tough. Hammons was just 6 of 16 from the field and accounted for four of Purdue's 12 turnovers. The Boilermakers shot just 41.8 percent from the field, were 3 of 14 on 3-pointers and lost for only the second time in seven games — a telltale sign of how the Buckeyes' unflappable veterans will respond to challenges.
"That's something (experience) that we haven't had the luxury of having very much at Ohio State," Matta said. "I talk about it with our guys all the time, 'You've been through this before.' You know we never panicked and there's no drill that you can do in practice to give them experience."
Ohio State still showed how much it has learned over the years.
After a topsy-turvy first half, in which neither team led by more than four points, and with the Buckeyes' top two centers getting into foul trouble defending Hammons, Ohio State managed to find a way out.
It made a concerted effort early in the second half to push the ball inside, extending a 34-33 halftime to 44-39. Forty-five seconds later, Terone Johnson tied the score with a 3. Hammons tied it again at 46 on a tip-in with 13:57 left.
Then the Buckeyes veterans took over.
After using a 6-0 run to finally take a 52-46 lead with 10:35 to go, Scott and Ross went on a personal scoring spree. Each of the juniors scored five points in the decisive 10-2 spurt that pushed the lead to 65-53 with 6:17 remaining — and this time, it was too much for Purdue to overcome. The Boilermakers couldn't get closer than five the rest of the way.
"That might be one of his best games," Matta said when asked about Craft's performance. "I mean, what do you say? His poise, he had great reads on penetration."