EVANSTON, Ill. -- D.J. Carton was disappointed with his play. He wanted to deliver for his teammates on slumping Ohio State.
He felt much better after one impressive stretch on Sunday.
Carton scored 12 of his 17 points in the second half, helping the Buckeyes hold off lowly Northwestern for a sorely needed 71-59 win.
"I've been working hard on practice, and my teammates put a lot of belief in me and push me at practice," Carton said, "so it's starting to come along and my confidence is building."
Once ranked as high as No. 2 in the AP Top 25, the Buckeyes had dropped six of seven to plummet out of the poll altogether. But they got back on track behind their defense, holding the Wildcats to 26.7% shooting in the second half.
"I thought we tightened up," coach Chris Holtmann said. "I thought it really wasn't any significant adjustments on our part as much as I think the guys just played a little harder when they needed to."
Led by Carton and Ahrens, the Buckeyes enjoyed a 39-10 advantage in points by reserves. Carton said the team has stayed positive despite its recent trouble.
"These next games are huge and we're going to need every one of them since we dug ourself into a hole," he said. "We're going to need bench players to step up, and those toughness plays are going to have to be consistent throughout."
"We're just going to keep fighting, come in every day," freshman Boo Buie said. "We're young, but we're not using it as an excuse. We're in these games. We know we can win these games.
"We're not going to stop until we find a way to win."
Buie made a 3-pointer to give Northwestern a 44-41 lead with 14:44 left. But Ohio State responded with a 14-2 run.
Carton opened the decisive stretch with consecutive baskets, including a fast-break layup that put the Buckeyes ahead to stay. Ahrens capped the run with two 3s, making it 55-46 with 11:30 to go.
The Wildcats closed to 59-55 on Ryan Young's layup with 5:14 remaining. Carton then made a couple of big plays, sinking two foul shots and converting an acrobatic alley-oop off a pass from Duane Washington Jr.
"When the game was on the line those last five or six minutes, they stepped up," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said.
The death of former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant was on the mind of each team. Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash in Southern California on Sunday.
Collins' father, Doug, played with Bryant's father, Joe, on the Philadelphia 76ers, and Chris Collins worked with Kobe Bryant when he served as an assistant coach for Team USA at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
"It's just a really a hard day," an emotional Collins said. "It puts it all in perspective."
Holtmann said he talked to his team about his Bryant's death before the game. Washington's uncle, Derek Fisher, played with Bryant with the Lakers, and Holtmann said it hit the sophomore guard particularly hard.
"I think anybody in this generation that has been involved with basketball feels a real connection in a lot of ways to him because of his imprint on the game and how incredibly competitive he was," Holtmann said.
Ohio State got off to a slow start in each half, but it was an encouraging result given its recent trouble. Led by Ahrens, the Buckeyes went 11 for 29 from 3-point range.
Northwestern led by as many as nine in the first half, but struggled to score down the stretch.
Ohio State hosts Indiana on Saturday. The Buckeyes lost 66-54 to the Hoosiers on Jan. 11.
Northwestern visits No. 11 Michigan State on Wednesday. The Wildcats lost 77-72 to the Spartans on Dec. 18.
Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap
For more AP college basketball coverage: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and http://twitter.com/AP-Top25
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