COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — With two starters on the bench and the score tied late in Tuesday night’s game with Purdue, No. 3 Ohio State needed its most experienced player to take control.
And that’s what William Buford did.
Buford, the only senior on the roster, scored a career-high 29 points and capped his night with a pivotal dunk in the final minute to lead the Buckeyes past hot-shooting Purdue 87-84.
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“I just got good looks,” Buford said. “I was taking them and fortunate enough to knock them down. I wasn’t thinking about my shots, I was just shooting the ball like my teammates have been telling me to do. That was about it.”
The win was Ohio State’s 39th in a row at home — since losing to Purdue two years ago at Value City Arena.
Buford scored 21 points in the second half to carry the Buckeyes (21-3, 9-2 Big Ten) while All-America Jared Sullinger and point guard Aaron Craft were on the bench with foul trouble. He scored seven straight points for Ohio State as it took the lead for good, his dunk with 39 seconds left sealed it.
Some fans have been critical of Buford’s play in recent weeks as he struggled to put two good games together.
But his coach never wavered in supporting him.
“I haven’t ever worried about Will,” Thad Matta said. “Maybe not every shot’s been falling for him. But I’ve got confidence in him and I’ll never lose it.”
Sullinger had 18 points and Deshaun Thomas and Craft 13 added apiece for the first-place Buckeyes, who have won six straight and eight of nine.
It was a battle throughout, however.
“Sometimes you have to find a way to win,” Craft said. “And we did that tonight.”
D.J. Byrd, averaging 6.5 points a game, had a career-best 24 for the Boilermakers (15-9, 5-6), while Kelsey Barlow and Lewis Jackson each had 14 and Robbie Hummel added 13.
Purdue was coming off perhaps its worst game of the season, a 78-61 loss at home to Indiana. Coach Matt Painter said after that debacle that he was disappointed in his team’s effort. He certainly wasn’t after the close battle with Ohio State.
“I thought we played well enough to win,” he said after watching his team shoot 52 percent from the field and 58 percent (11 of 19) on 3-pointers. “We just didn’t get a couple of breaks at the end.”
No more than three points separated the teams for the entire second half until Buford went off down the stretch.
After a first half that featured brilliant outside shooting and sparkling passing, the last 20 minutes were dominated by physical play, lots of fouls and near hand-to-hand combat under the basket.
The Buckeyes finally got some traction with Sullinger and Craft on the bench and Buford was the triggerman.
With the score tied at 73 and 4:38 left, he swished a shot from the top of the key to give the Buckeyes the lead for good. At the other end, Barlow’s shot was blocked by Ohio State’s Sam Thompson. Buford then hit another long jumper for a 77-73 lead.
After Hummel missed a 3-pointer, Buford took a pass in the backcourt from substitute point guard Shannon Scott, stepped back, and hit a high, arcing 3 to make it 80-73 with 2:54 left.
Purdue drew to five points on Jackson’s drive through traffic at 1:53.
With 1:07 left, Sullinger went back to the bench after being hurt on a rebound attempt. Byrd, who was fouled on the play, missed the first but hit the second to make it 80-76.
Craft then hit a free throw before Buford tipped away a loose ball at the defensive end and raced the length of the court for a dunk with 39 seconds left to give Ohio State enough room to outlast two late Purdue 3s.
All of the criticism Buford had been hearing was suddenly a distant memory.
“When I’m feeling it, it’s hard to stop me,” he said.