INDIANAPOLIS -- When defending Ohio State, you must pick your poison.
You either double-team Jared Sullinger in the paint and risk being shot out of the gym by the Buckeyes’ array of shooters, or you let the big man operate one-on-one.
After watching Ohio State make an NCAA-record 14-of-15 3-pointers Sunday against Wisconsin, Northwestern opted for the latter Friday. It spent most of the afternoon with just one lonely defender watching the freshman strong man.
It almost worked. The underdog Wildcats got the game into overtime, largely by controlling tempo and limiting Ohio State to just 3-of-15 shooting from 3-point range. But Sullinger wouldn’t let Ohio State lose, and made Northwestern pay for its defensive decision.
Sullinger used his broad shoulders and ample derriere to muscle for position, and his teammates delivered the ball. The 6-foot-9, 280-pound teenager wore out every big man Bill Carmody had.
He fouled out Davide Curletti and Luka Mirkovic and drew fouls from John Shurna when he was thrust into defend-the-post service. Sullinger had a Kevin Love line: 20 points and 18 rebounds, and he made 16 of 18 free throws to power Ohio State to a shaky 67-61 victory.
“Gotta make your free throws,” Sullinger said. “Free throws are a big part of my game.”
At one point he scored nine straight Ohio State points, from late in regulation through the first 2:17 of overtime.
“It’s the Big Ten,” Sullinger explained. “This is where you’ve got to be physical. Everyone’s going to foul you.”
Sullinger said the officials “are going to swallow their whistles,” but Northwestern fans would disagree after watching Sullinger’s parade to the foul line. The Wildcats were so frustrated that when Mirkovic was called for his fourth foul in overtime, he spiked his mouthpiece to the floor and drew a technical that got him fouled out.
Not the smartest play from a guy at a brainy school.
“You just can’t make that showy kind of maneuver,” Carmody said. “The ref is not there to interpret whether you did that because you’re mad at yourself or at him. He just sees the action.”
This was the second time Northwestern had pushed Ohio State to the brink, losing by a point in Evanston, Ill. in late January. In that game, Sullinger scored the winning point on a free throw.
“I can’t stand to lose, personally,” he said. “If we’d lost this game, I’d probably be punching lockers, throwing stuff around. You’ve got to hate losing more than you love winning.”
Ohio State has lost only twice this season, so Sullinger hasn’t had to experience much of that. In large part because he won’t let his team lose.