INDIANAPOLIS — Ohio State and Northwestern spent most of the second half yesterday trying to create a few points of separation during the opening game of the Big Ten tournament.
After the Buckeyes finally snapped the 10th tie of the fast-paced half on a basket by Amersyt Alston with 1:15 to play, senior forward Martina Ellerbe made two plays that would open enough room for an 86-77 win.
Ellerbe broke up a run-out pass by the Wildcats at one end of the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and calmly connected on a three-pointer at the other to make it 78-73 with 1:23 to go.
The five points of separation, plus an 8-of-8 finish at the free-throw line, helped the Buckeyes (16-17) advance to a game today against top-seeded Penn State (22-6) in a quarterfinal.
“I knew they were running real hard in transition,” Ellerbe said. “I think I was just trying to get back and I kind of got lucky. I got in the way of that one just trying to stop the long pass.”
The steal prevented a layup and the three-pointer presented Ohio State with an opportunity to run down the clock.
“That was really big,” said Alston, who led all scorers with 30 points. “They had been getting some transition buckets and that caused us to go back and forth with the scoring, which is something we don’t like to do. She did a great job of getting back on defense. That gave us some momentum and we pushed it in transition.”
Alston hit four free throws in the final 51 seconds. Amy Scullion and Cait Craft each made two free throws to seal the win and finally do away with the tension that began to build in the final five minutes of the first half.
The Wildcats (15-15) had rocked the Buckeyes with a 16-0 run to take a 39-35 lead and what felt like every bit of the momentum into the break.
Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff tied the lapse to poor defense.
“Northwestern was running harder on offense than we were getting back on transition defense,” he said. “To compound it, we were taking a lot of quick, contested threes, which were leading to long rebounds and allowing them to get out in transition.”
Halftime was calm, Alston said.
“We can’t get down on ourselves,” she said. “We go to the locker room, we talk about it and it’s 0-0 from there. You just play the rest of the second half really hard, and that’s what we did.”
When play resumed, Ellerbe and senior center Darryce Moore reset the tone with toughness inside. Ellerbe finished with 16 points and a career-high 13 rebounds. Moore checked in with 19 points and 10 rebounds.
“One of the things I was real happy to see was that Martina and Darryce had their best games in quite some time,” McGuff said. “If you’re going to win this time of the year, you have to lead with your seniors. They played like people that didn’t want to go home.”
The Buckeyes are 9-0 in first-round games at the tournament. They are 0-2 against Penn State this season.