COLUMBUS, Ohio — History was not about to repeat itself. Justin Ahrens made sure of that.
Eighteen days after Ohio State let a seven-point second-half lead slip away in a one-point loss at Northwestern, the No. 21 Buckeyes were ahead by double digits at the midpoint of the second half when the Wildcats came roaring back. And when the visitors pulled within a point after a deep Boo Buie three, Ohio State called timeout with 4:04 to play and drew up a look.
Ahrens, who had three three-pointers already, buried his attempt from the left wing to restore the momentum and key a late surge that led Ohio State (10-3, 4-3 Big Ten) to an 81-71 win against the Wildcats (6-5, 3-4).
Ohio State pushed its lead to 13 points early in the second half, but Northwestern closed to within five with an 8-0 run buoyed by a rare pair of three-pointers and started to fight its way back into the game. The Buckeyes, though, traded blows and, with their lead at 58-52 scored on three straight possessions capped by a Duane Washington Jr. feed to Kyle Young that pushed the lead to 12 points with 9:32 to play.
Unlike 18 days ago, when the Buckeyes led a second-half lead slip away in a one-point loss at Northwestern, this would merely be a similar story with a different ending. Northwestern used an 8-0 run to pull within 67-66, forcing the Buckeyes to call timeout with 4:04 to play and the game within one possession for the first time since Ohio State held a 20-17 first-half lead.
After the Ahrens three, Ohio State got a transition basket from Justice Sueing and a three-point play from Young to build a nine-point lead with two minutes to play, effectively sealing the deal. It would start a game-sealing, 12-0 run.
A few hours before the game, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann told The Dispatch that guard Jimmy Sotos would be unavailable with a right shoulder injury suffered in Saturday’s win at Rutgers. He watched the Buckeyes warm up alongside the player he replaced, senior CJ Walker, who missed his second straight game with torn ligaments in his right hand.
Without either available, Ahrens moved into the starting lineup and, for the first time in his career, Sueing was tasked with helping run the point.
Northwestern’s Chase Audige came out firing, and matched up with Ahrens the sophomore guard scored the first 11 points for the Wildcats and 15 of their first 17. By the half, Audige had 21, three short of his career-high scoring total and more than he’d put up at any point this season.
The Buckeyes countered with Washington Jr., who had 17 points, and their perimeter shooting. Ohio State was 8 for 18 from three (44.4%) during the first half as Northwestern went 1 for 11 (9.1%).
They got a boost from freshman Meechie Johnson Jr., who in his second career game and first at home hit his first career shot when he buried a three with 6:06 to play in the half. Then, during the final minute, Ohio State ran a play to get him another shot from the right corner, and he drained it with 23.6 seconds to help the Buckeyes take a 42-33 lead into the break.
Ohio State did it despite a scoreless first half from E.J. Liddell, their second-leading scorer, and three points from frontcourt mate Young.