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Published: Thursday, 2/20/2014

COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Late surge in 1st half leads Buckeyes to win

BY DAVID BRIGGS
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Referees and coaches separate Northwestern's Nikola Cerina, right, and Ohio State's LaQuinton Ross during a second-half scuffle on Wednesday. Cerina and Ross were both ejected from the game. Referees and coaches separate Northwestern's Nikola Cerina, right, and Ohio State's LaQuinton Ross during a second-half scuffle on Wednesday. Cerina and Ross were both ejected from the game.
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COLUMBUS — Ohio State’s 76-60 dusting of Northwestern on Wednesday night was anything but the sort of wire-to-wire rumble that has defined this madcap, overturned Big Ten basketball season.

Unless you count that late tussle that cost the Buckeyes their leading scorer.

In a wild exclamation point on an otherwise resounding performance by suddenly streaking OSU (21-6, 8-6), LaQuinton Ross and Wildcats reserve forward Nikola Cerina were ejected with 5:24 remaining.

The incident began with Cerina punching Buckeyes center Amir Williams, then devolved into a mild fracas, with Ross shoving Cerina and Drew Crawford in retaliation and refs attempting to separate the mass of bodies. Officials spent about 10 minutes reviewing the replay before ejecting Cerina and Ross and handing out five technicals — three to Ohio State, two to Northwestern (12-15, 5-9).

Lead official Ray Perone said afterward Cerina will be suspended one game for punching Williams with a "closed fist." Ross, who was ejected for two dead-ball contact technical fouls, will not face a suspension.

"It all happened so quick," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "I saw their guy shove Amir into the basket support, and from there it was a melee. Not a melee, but a little unorganized, if you will."

Matta and Northwestern coach Chris Collins supported the officials’ handling of the scrap while OSU players said Ross apologized to the team afterward.

For the Buckeyes, it was the only cloud over their most dominant performance in nearly two months. Ross had 16 points, Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith each added 14 points, and OSU obliterated an early nine-point deficit in winning for the fifth time in six games.

Trailing 25-16, the Buckeyes closed the first half on a 21-8 run, then continued to pile on. In all, OSU outscored the Wildcats 40-12 in building a 19-point lead midway through the second half.

"For whatever reason, we woke up," said OSU forward Sam Thompson, who added 11 points and was 3-of-4 from beyond the arc.

"We drew the line. We talk about having to have that killer instinct and putting teams away, and I think on both sides of the ball, we did that."

It was a rare statement in this wild Big Ten winter — a bruising voyage that does not afford Matta the luxury to daydream about the bigger picture.

"I let my therapist do that," he cracked.

Every year, Matta and his colleagues say the league is the deepest they have ever seen — and, trust them, it really is this winter. Gone are the half dozen conference snoozers the Buckeyes could write in as wins. Games like Wednesday’s visit from Northwestern — a team they had beaten 32 straight times in Columbus.

While a healthy Michigan State may be the Big Ten’s only truly elite team, the leagues’ working class is growing. Big Ten road teams are a staggering 34-42 during conference play while OSU has lost three games at home for the first time in Matta’s 10 seasons in Columbus.

Yet since the Buckeyes’ stunning home loss to Penn State last month — their fifth loss in six games — they have made their usual late-season charge. Another high seed in the NCAA tournament suddenly no longer seems implausible, with the 13th-ranked Spartans the only team ranked among their five remaining regular-season opponents.

"l like the direction we're heading," Matta said. "Historically, we've tried to play our best basketball at this time."

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.



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