IOWA CITY, Iowa — The story a week ago was about a soft team that couldn’t hold a lead against anyone, that melted in the face of adversity, that had lost five of six games after winning its first 15.
Where did that team go? Who knows? Who cares?
Ohio State fans have their other team back. If they weren’t sure of it after a victory on Saturday over a Wisconsin team in its own sinking boat, last night offered more legitimate proof.
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Ohio State, unranked for the first time in four years, went into Carver-Hawkeye Arena and defeated No. 17 Iowa 76-69, scoring 45 points in the second half and making 11 of 14 free throws in the last 1:17 to hand the Hawkeyes just their second home loss of the season.
It was the first time since 1999 that the Buckeyes (18-5 overall, 5-5 Big Ten) have won consecutive road games over ranked opponents. Wisconsin was ranked 14th.
“The biggest difference I’m feeling is the overall mindset of our team down the stretch,” said guard Aaron Craft, who led all scorers with 17 points and also had six assists and six steals.
“After we lost to Michigan State and Iowa (in early January), things just kind of started building on each other, and we couldn’t play past mistakes . . . and things just compounded.
“When we get in timeouts down the stretch now, everyone kind of has a look in their eye. They want to be that guy that helps our team get that win.”
At Wisconsin, it was a defensive stop by Craft and LaQuinton Ross on the last possession of the game that preserved a one-point victory.
Last night, the Buckeyes shot 54.2 percent in the second half to build a nine-point lead, and then made their free throws to prevent an Iowa rally.
Four other Buckeyes scored in double figures. LaQuinton Ross had 13 points, Amir Williams and Lenzelle Smith Jr. 12 each and Shannon Scott 11.
Guard Mike Gesell led Iowa (17-6, 6-4) with 16 points.
After Iowa wiped out a nine-point deficit with a 16-5 run to close the first half, it kept the momentum early in the second as Ohio State was called for four fouls in the first three minutes.
But Smith, shooting only 25.6 percent from behind the arc in the Big Ten, countered with two threes, the second of which put the Buckeyes ahead to stay, 39-36 with 16:17 to play.
“Lenzelle’s start to the second half was probably the difference in the game in terms of getting the momentum back,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
“I told him and Shannon at halftime to (loosen up),” said Matta, whose language was more colorful. “Both guys did a great job of stepping up.”
Smith and Scott had one point between them at halftime but combined for 22 in the second half after Craft scored 14 of Ohio State’s 31 in the first half.
“Anytime they win, (Smith) plays well. He’s the X factor,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “He was in a slump and it affected their team. He’s had a couple good games now and that could be a big difference for that team moving forward.”
The Buckeyes stretched their lead to 58-49 with 6:19 left, but Iowa responded with five straight points to get as close as 58-54 with 4:44 left.
But after the Buckeyes nearly squandered another possession and had to inbound from the baseline with two seconds on the shot clock, Craft lobbed to Williams, who dunked for a 60-54 lead with 4:09 left. Iowa was as close as four again with 1:45 to play, but the Buckeyes didn’t give them an opening at the line.
“We’re believing again,” Smith said. “Every game we’ve lost, we’ve been close and somehow let the game slip away. Now we’re figuring out ways to close the game out.”