Columbus, OH -- Don't call it a comeback for Kelsey Mitchell or the No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes.
They kept their heads down, hung around and waited…to catch fire. Scoring only a single point from the free throw line with under a minute left in the first half, Mitchell ignited for 26 points in 20 minutes to finish as the high scorer with 27 to lead the Buckeyes past Northwestern, 76-73, in a Big 10 rematch.
"It shows a lot of growth," Ohio State head coach Kevin McGuff said. "This probably isn't a game we would have won in November, but we have more toughness, and it showed down the stretch."
After receiving their only conference loss of the season, falling 86-82 to Northwestern (13-8, 2-7) two weeks earlier, Ohio State (16-4, 8-1) wasn't about to let another one slip away. The Buckeyes fell victim to a slow start; however, when they heated up, the Wildcats struggled to match their intensity.
"We just had to find a way," Cait Craft said. "Against a team like Northwestern they have talent, and they disrupted us a lot."
Northwestern paced an 18-13 advantage by the end of the first period on an 8-2 run, spanning that over the last three minutes. Shooting 57.1 percent (4-of-7) from outside the arc, the Wildcats gained a quick edge on Nia Coffey and Christen Inman three-point baskets during the spurt. The long-range makes held Northwestern's offense together early, as they shot just over 35 percent from the field.
The Buckeyes managed to reel in the Wildcats' outside threats in the second quarter, allowing only one more three-point attempt and forcing them to look inside. However, they scored 12 of 16 points in the paint to maintain their lead.
Ohio State's saving grace over the second quarter was a pair of Craft thee-point baskets that cut the score to 20-16 early and 32-29 at the end of the quarter. Craft finished the half second in scoring for the Buckeyes with six, as Ameryst Alston led the team with nine points.
By the end of the game, Craft shot a perfect 5-for-5 from the floor, 3-for-3 from 3-point range and 1-for-1 from the free throw line to total 14 points.
"Cait was outstanding," McGuff said. "She played an excellent game, and we needed everything she gave us. That's what you expect out of a senior. It was great to see her play that way."
The Buckeyes only managed to make up one point before halftime as the Wildcats carried a 34-30 lead. Northwestern's offense was fueled by Coffey and Inman with 13 and eight points, respectively.
The real problem Ohio State faced in the first half was getting Kelsey Mitchell active on the offensive end of the hardwood. Entering the contest, Mitchell averaged 25.2 points per game as the team's go-to scorer. Northwestern held her scoreless in the first quarter and only allowed her to drop one point in the second.
With 42.4 remaining before the break, Mitchell went 1-for-2 on her first trip to the free throw line. Over the entire first half, Ashley Deary matched up with Mitchell to hold her to 0-for-8 on field goals and 0-for-6 from 3-point range. Mitchell finished the half with one point, one rebound and two assists.
"(I told her) just to keep playing," McGuff said. "She's so good. She turned it on when we needed it. She kind of felt like she was playing a little bit fast. I told her to go ahead and slow it down, but stay aggressive."
After a sluggish first half, the Buckeyes generated an 8-0 run to take control, leading the Wildcats 38-34 with 6:38 on the clock. Over the next two minutes, they pushed out to their greatest advantage of the night, 43-38, on a Craft three.
Although OSU took strides in the right direction to start the third stanza and reached a high-point with a five-point cushion, Northwestern quickly cut into it and pushed ahead nine on a 14-0 response. During the spurt, the Wildcats found their footing outside and shot 2-for-3 from the arc.
Alexa Hart finally stopped the Wildcats' run, completing a three-point play to get the Buckeyes back on track. Mitchell brought Ohio State within two points on a completed and-one and set the score at 52-50 with 10.2 remaining on the clock.
Inman kissed the ball off the glass one last time, allowing Northwestern to carry a 54-50 edge into the fourth quarter.
"I felt like we had a couple spurts in the second half where we had a chance to stretch it out, and we didn't," McGuff said. "That's something we have to continue to work on, but at the same time in the last two minutes, we did a lot of great things."
By the end of the third period, Mitchell and Alston led the team with 11 points apiece. By the end of the fourth quarter, Mitchell totaled 27 points, closing on a 16-point fourth quarter to seal the deal for Ohio State.
"People like Cait and the coaches said keep shooting and they'll fall," Mitchell said. "You can't stop shooting now, or you'll never be on, you'll never get in the rhythm. So I kept attacking and shooting the ball."
The Wildcats pushed back out to seven points ahead before the Buckeyes paced a 7-0 run on a pair of Mitchell three's and a Shayla Cooper putback. Facing a 58-57 deficit, Northwestern showed resilience and jumped ahead five on consecutive Maggie Lyon baskets and an Inman make to take its last substantial lead, 63-58.
The way the game shifted over the last four and a half minutes was as unpredictable as Mitchell's quiet first half.
"I thought Ohio State made a lot of plays in the last three minutes, four minutes of the fourth quarter and we had some turnovers that I think hurt us," Northwestern coach Joe McKeown said.
The offense started flowing. Craft completed a 3-point play to bring the Buckeyes within two points. Mitchell gave them a 64-63 lead with a huge 3-pointer.
"She's (Mitchell) going to miss a few shots, but she's not going to be off for the entire game," Craft said.
Then defense buckled down. Hart and Alston took back-to-back charges on consecutive Northwestern possessions to grab momentum. Ohio State outscored Northwestern 12-10 over the final three minutes. Mitchell scored seven of the last 12 down the stretch, and Craft added her final basket to complete a perfect night.
"I think we really until the last two minutes handled their pressure well," McKeown said. "We did it in the game when we beat them in Northwestern, and we did it tonight. We were able to get shots, get the ball inside out, attack them a little bit. We just didn't finish the game. I feel bad for my team because we played really hard."