COLUMBUS - The day after Ohio State lost its captain and most experienced player, coach Thad Matta walked into a staff meeting and wrote a magic number of wins on the blackboard.
Almost three months later, and still without David Lighty, his Buckeyes met that lofty goal.
Evan Turner hit two jumpers down the stretch and Jon Diebler added two clinching free throws as Ohio State beat Northwestern 52-47 on Sunday to hang on for its 20th win and likely grab a NCAA tournament berth.
The Buckeyes (20-9, 10-8), who nearly blew a 12-point second-half lead, will be the No. 5 seed and Northwestern No. 9 at the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.
"Don't repeat this," Matta joked after the win. "We got the staff in and I drew the No. 20 up. And I said, ‘Fellows, we've got to find a way to get 20 wins in the regular season with this team.' ... It's kind of been a joke as we've been inching through the season. They've been saying, ‘We remember the number you wrote.' That was the number we thought it was going to be a heck of a run with Dave going down, at 9 o'clock the next morning after he broke his foot."
The number was particularly special for Matta, since it kept his streak of 20-win seasons intact. He's now 9-for-9 as a head coach. He also believes his team deserves to be in the NCAA tournament no matter what happens this week at the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.
"You start with the non-conference and what we tried to do, from the standpoint of who we played," he said before listing several opponents the Buckeyes beat who may already be in the NCAA tournament. "Most importantly, we got 20 wins and didn't play in a (tournament) this year. I don't know how many teams across the country who have 20 plus wins can say that."
Turner had 17 points, Diebler and William Buford 11 apiece and B.J. Mullens 10 for the Buckeyes, who had no seniors to honor at their final home game of the year.
Asked if the Buckeyes were in the NCAA field, Turner said, "I'm not really worried about it, but I don't see why not."
Craig Moore scored 18 points - including a late four-point play - for the Wildcats (17-12, 8-10). Kevin Coble added 13 and Michael Thompson 12.
"They hung in there, they hung in there," coach Bill Carmody said of his players after they ended up tying for the most regular-season wins ever at the school. "Things weren't going their way but they figured out a way to get the game right down to the last play. We'll go from here."
The Buckeyes barely survived several Northwestern chances to force overtime.
Two 3-pointers by Moore and another by Coble gave the Wildcats a 41-39 lead before Turner slashed through the lane and hit a finger roll to tie it.
After a Northwestern turnover, Turner drove to the middle of the lane, faked and shot over the outstretched hand of defender Jeff Ryan to make it 43-41 with just over 4 minutes left.
That led to Thompson's wild shot.
With time running out on the shot clock, he took a kickout pass from Luka Mirkovic and heaved a shot as the buzzer sounded, contorting his body to get the shot off around Diebler's defense. The shot banked in, with referee Tim Higgins signaling that the 3 was released in time and that Diebler had fouled Thompson. Thompson's free throw completed the four-point play and gave the Wildcats a 45-43 lead with 3:38 remaining.
"That was just a stupid play by me," Diebler said of the foul.
Diebler countered almost immediately with a 3 from the left corner to give the lead back to Ohio State.
Following a Northwestern miss, Diebler used a stutter-dribble to get through the lane and past three defenders for a layup and a 48-45 Buckeyes lead with just over 2 minutes left.
A minute later, Thompson drove from the corner along the left baseline and his 10-foot runner fell to cut the gap to a point.
With the Wildcats now back in the zone but wary of Mullens, Turner drove past Sterling Williams to hit a pull-up 15-foot jumper with 25 seconds remaining for a 50-47 lead.
"They kept calling plays for me," Turner said.
Coble missed a 3 while trying to draw a foul with 14 seconds left, Mullens rebounding for Ohio State.
He was fouled but the Buckeyes were not in the bonus. On the inbound pass, Moore was able to deflect the ball off of Turner's foot and out of bounds to give Northwestern another chance.
The best shot the Wildcats could get was Mirkovic's forced 3 from the left corner, with Turner getting a hand on the ball as Mirkovic released it. The ball came up short of the basket, with Diebler catching it without having to leave his feet.
He was promptly fouled and hit both free throws to clinch the decision.
"We responded," Diebler said. "We kind of manned up tonight."