CHICAGO — After three games of rest, Kaleb Wesson helped Ohio State shake off the rust.
Wesson returned from his three-game suspension to score 17 points and grab 13 rebounds — his fourth double-double of the season and fifth of his career — and graduate transfer Keyshawn Woods scored 18 points to lead the Buckeyes to a 79-75 win over Indiana on Thursday in the Big Ten tournament at the United Center.
“My teammates were making a big deal at the beginning of game, like ‘We’re happy to have you back. We’ll get you the ball and get you back in rhythm,’ ” said Wesson, who watched from the bench, dressed in warm-ups, the past two weeks as the Buckeyes lost to Purdue, Northwestern and Wisconsin, jeopardizing their chances of making the NCAA Tournament.
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“I did a lot of soul-searching during those two weeks, just really (about) my priorities and what I was really was about,” he said. “I really hurt seeing my teammates out there and not being able to help them when I knew I could contribute to that part of the game.”
Wesson could have said every part of the game and not been wrong. Ohio State without the 6-foot-9 sophomore center is spaghetti without the sauce. With him? The Buckeyes (19-13) may have secured a spot in the NCAA Tournament — ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had OSU the last team in and Indiana (17-15) the first team out entering Thursday — but won’t know for certain until the field is announced Sunday. Unless, that is, No. 8 seed Ohio State upsets against No. 1 Michigan State on Friday, which would seal the deal.
Then again, OSU showed against Indiana that sealing the deal is not necessarily its specialty. The Buckeyes led 35-28 at halftime and was up by 20 with 7:30 left before No. 9 seed Indiana went on a 13-0 run that made things interesting. Too interesting for Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann.
“We thought it would get tight, but not necessarily that tight,” Holtmann said.
Ohio State still led by 10 with 1:34 when Indiana forward Evan Fitzner hit a three-pointer and Romeo Langford made back-to-back layups to make it 72-69 with 55 seconds left. Woods stemmed the bleeding with a bucket in the lane to push the margin to five with 34.7 seconds remaining and Duane Washington Jr. dunked with 16 seconds left to make it 76-69.
Game over? Not quite. Devonte Green sandwiched two three-pointers around an Andre Wesson free throw to make it 77-75 with six seconds left and OSU needed two free throws from C.J. Jackson to seal it. Jackson finished with 17 points and Andre Wesson added 13.
The Ohio State offense operated much more smoothly with Kaleb Wesson adding a scoring presence down low and passing out of the low post. The Buckeyes shot 45.2 percent from the field, including 36.4 percent from three.
“It’s a big difference with K in there,” said Woods, whose 18 points were one off his season high. “He draws so much attention, and the things he is capable of when it comes to making moves and the level of his screens to get us open.”
Wesson’s ability to guard the rim also boosted the defense. The Buckeyes scored 24 points off turnovers, which led to their most productive transition game this season.
How comfortable is Holtmann that Ohio State will make the Big Dance?
“I certainly feel like our body of work speaks for itself,” he said. “Obviously, Kaleb makes a difference for sure.”