Ohio State entered Saturday's game having dropped five of six including Wednesday's stunning home loss to Penn State. Wisconsin entered Saturday's game having dropped four of five including Wednesday's horrible home loss to Northwestern.
In a matchup pitting two teams desperate for a victory, the Buckeyes managed to get the win they needed by playing slightly less poorly than the Badgers. Aaron Craft scored his only seven points of the game in the final four minutes, helping Ohio State rally from a seven-point second-half deficit and eke out a hard-fought but sometimes hard-to-watch 59-58 victory.
Ohio State won despite shooting only 42.8 percent from the field, missing key free throws down the stretch and giving Wisconsin new life in the final seconds with a near-disastrous turnover. Lenzelle Smith should have scored an uncontested transition basket with 10 seconds left and Ohio State already up one, but the senior guard botched the layup, then traveled as teammate Amir Williams bowled him over from behind as both were vying for the rebound.
Only a defensive stand from the Buckeyes on Wisconsin's final possession preserved the victory. Well aware that point guard Traevon Jackson would probably want to take the final shot for the Badgers, Ohio State sent multiple defenders at him and forced him to kick-out to teammate Sam Dekker with less than two seconds left on the game clock.
The significance of the outcome was clear from the relief of Ohio State coach Thad Matta after Dekker's desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer badly missed the mark. An emotional Matta bear hugged video coordinator Jake Diebler as though the Buckeyes had just clinched a conference championship before composing himself to go through the postgame handshake line.
Ohio State won't receive any trophies for upending Wisconsin, but the Buckeyes at least avoided falling into a deeper hole. An Ohio State team that was 15-0 and No. 3 in the nation only four weeks ago would have fallen to 3-6 in the Big Ten had it lost with a road game at Iowa looming next.
Credit Ohio State for the grit and determination it showed winning on the road, but the downside to the victory is that many of the problems that have plagued the Buckeyes during their January slump flared up again Saturday afternoon. They still lack sufficient scoring options, they still don't generate enough transition offense from their stingy defense and they still can be susceptible defensively in the paint.
The opposing big man who enjoyed success against Ohio State this time was Nigel Hayes, which had to be especially frustrating for the Buckeyes since the Wisconsin freshman is an Ohio native whom the Badgers recruited harder. Hayes scored 17 points on 6 of 7 shooting off the bench, and he'd have done even more damage had he not missed six of his seven free throws.
Ohio State held Wisconsin without a field goal for the final 6:44 of the game, but that stat is misleading in a lot of ways because the Badgers attempted 10 free throws during that stretch and blew six of them.
What was the best thing Ohio State did defensively in the final minutes? "Fouled," Matta deadpanned to reporters after the game.
Still, if Ohio State has lingering issues, the Buckeyes could at least look over at the opposing bench and take solace that it could be worse.
Ohio State gets the confidence boost of a badly needed victory. Wisconsin has to go back to practice knowing that it let a winnable game slip away and that it has now lost three home games in a row for the first time in Bo Ryan's tenure in Madison.