EVANSTON, Ill. — For a few glorious seconds, the gravity of everything surrounding the Ohio State men’s basketball team no longer applied.
Sophomore guard Duane Washington Jr., acutely mourning the loss of an NBA legend he was close enough with to call his uncle, pushed the ball up court as teammate D.J. Carton tried to make up for a defensive lapse by cutting hard to the opposite block.
The two made eye contact. Washington threw a lob, perhaps a split-second too late. Then Carton, the explosive freshman who recently had been moved back to the Buckeyes bench, sprung from the lane, got a hand on the pass and seemingly defied physics to redirect the ball into the basket.
The basket gave the Buckeyes a 63-55 lead with 4:29 to play. It doubled over Northwestern coach Chris Collins, who clasped his hands behind his head in disbelief. Most important, it broke the backs of the upset-minded Wildcats as Ohio State (13-7, 3-6 Big Ten) pulled away for a 71-59 win at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“I really don’t know how (it went in),” Carton told The Dispatch. “I just tipped it, really, had a little touch to it, and it went in. The energy was different here.”
It was needed for Ohio State to start distancing itself from a stretch of six losses in seven games. Northwestern (6-13, 1-8) has dwelled near the bottom of the conference standings all season, but road wins have been at a premium throughout the first half of Big Ten play regardless of location.
For the Buckeyes, all wins have been at a premium. With six days until a home game against Indiana, they have their latest chance to build on some positive momentum earned by weathering a rough start, getting important contributions from their bench and successfully implementing a smaller lineup that helped close out the game with center Kaleb Wesson in foul trouble.
The Buckeyes finished with 11 three-pointers, their most since hitting 13 against Southeast Missouri on Dec. 17. Sophomore Justin Ahrens, who had two in Big Ten play this season, led the way with four three-pointers.
“It’s hard to stay ready sometimes when you’re going to play some and not play other times, but he stayed ready and gave us a great lift tonight,” coach Chris Holtmann said of Ahrens. “I thought our bench with E.J. (Liddell) and D.J. and Justin and Duane gave us a great lift.”
Carton led all scorers with 17 points. Washington, who added memorial messages to Kobe Bryant to his shoes and the tape on his left wrist, had eight points and three assists, as starter Luther Muhammad played only 14 minutes due to what Holtmann said was a back injury the sophomore tweaked shortly before tipoff.
When it was over, players signed autographs for fans lining the tunnel to the visitors’ locker room, and Holtmann even posed for selfies with young fans clamoring for them. For one night anyway, things were back on track.
“It was good for us,” Washington said. “We felt like we’ve been working hard and doing all the right things and felt like we had a good one coming our way. We came out and did what we were supposed to do.”