Deshaun Thomas scored 11 of his 22 points in the last 7 minutes and the 13th-ranked Buckeyes used a late 12-0 run to hold off the short-handed Wildcats 69-59.
It was their 32nd consecutive home win against the Wildcats, dating to Feb. 24, 1977 — when another big underdog, "Rocky," would win the Oscar for Best Picture and Jimmy Carter was in the White House.
But it certainly didn't come easy.
"I'm not one for big meetings and speeches," Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. "I just said, 'You guys have been in a lot of situations where you're underdogs and no one thought you had a chance. Go out there and play your tails off and if you do that, you get people's respect.' I thought they did that."
They certainly did.
The Wildcats (13-12, 4-8 Big Ten), with just seven healthy scholarship players, led by six points in the first half, by four with under seven minutes left and were dead even with a ranked opponent on its own court with just over three minutes remaining.
"We got down five there at 48-43, but I told the players, 'You can't panic,'" Ohio State (18-6, 8-4) coach Thad Matta said. "It was all going to come down to our defense."
The defense did its job, limiting the Wildcats — who were 11 of 26 on 3-pointers — to no long-distance shots in the waning moments.
Thomas did the rest.
Ohio State rallied by scratching and clawing inside and on the boards for points, finally grabbing a lead.
Tre Demps, who was 4 of 6 behind the arc in scoring 16 points for Northwestern, drilled one from the right wing to tie it again with 3:24 remaining as an uneasy crowd of 15,842 at Value City Arena held its collective breath.
But then Thomas scored in traffic and drew the fifth foul on Kale Abrahamson with 3:03 left.
Reggie Hearn, who added 12 points for the Wildcats, drove from the left side and his shot, which could have tied it, instead sat tantalizingly on the back of the iron for a full 2 seconds before finally falling off.
At the other end, Aaron Craft, who had seven points, three rebounds and six assists, then drove through the heart of the Northwestern defense and, shifting hands in midair, flipped in a left-handed layup to push the lead to 61-57 with 1:52 remaining.
"I found a lane and I was able to get it up on the backboard and usually that's very friendly," Craft said. "I beat the shot clock and fortunately it went in. We were doing a great job of rebounding. Even if I would have missed it we had guys in position to rebound the ball anyway."
Now the Wildcats, who had frustrated Ohio State's defense all game by making from the perimeter, could not find the range. After another miss, Thomas was fouled — Mike Turner's fifth — and he banged in both free throws. Sam Thompson then added two baskets in the final minute before Thomas made two more foul shots to complete the 12-point assault.
"Coach just told me to post up. Instead of being in the mid-post, go down low. If you notice, I played the 5. I haven't played the 5 since high school," Thomas said when asked how he broke out of a shooting slump in which he hit just 2 of his first 10 shots from the field. "It just freed me up. We got open on the post and Shannon (Scott) and Craft looked for me and I got a couple of easy buckets and that got me going."