EVANSTON, Ill. -- Even after losing four of their previous six games, the Northwestern Wildcats believed they could beat No. 5 Ohio State on Thursday night.
Turns out they were right. A big first half on offense and stout defense down the stretch propelled the Wildcats to an 86-82 victory over the Buckeyes, stopping Ohio State's winning streak at eight games.
"The coaches really challenged us this week," said guard Maggie Lyon, who led the Wildcats with 24 points. "We responded to it, played how we knew we could play."
One of those coaches was a visitor, Northwestern women's lacrosse coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, whose teams have won seven NCAA championships.
"I went to the bullpen," Wildcats coach Joe McKeown said.
"She told us rankings mean absolutely nothing," Lyon said about Hiller's talk.
Northwestern had dropped out of the Top 25 after back-to-back losses to Purdue and Michigan State. Beating Ohio State may impress the voters. It impressed Buckeyes coach Kevin McGruff.
"They played a lot harder than we did in the first half," McGuff said. "We weren't very aggressive and didn't execute. Northwestern showed up as a team that needed to get a win, and we showed as a team that would like to get a win."
Northwestern (13-4, 2/3 Big Ten) led 48-30 at the half, with Lyon hitting four of her five 3-point attempts. That helped negate Ohio State's full-court press, and allowed the Wildcats to work the ball inside, where Coffey scored 17 first-half points.
Ohio State (12-4, 4-1) closed the gap to five points in the final quarter, with Mitchell scoring 12 points. Her three-point play cut it to 82-77 with 1:21 to play, but Northwestern hit four of six free throws in the final minute.
"We were focusing on reversing the ball," Lyon said of the offense. "That moved the defense, and more openings came."
Nia Coffey added 23 points for the Wildcats, but left with game with a left ankle injury with 7:49 to go. The Buckeyes were unable to take advantage.
Christen Inman added 17 points, and freshman Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah had 14 points and 14 rebounds for Northwestern. They forced 16 turnovers and scored 23 points off the Buckeyes' miscues in leading all the way.
Kelsey Mitchell led Ohio State with 28 points, and Ameryst Alston and Alexa Hart each had 12.
"They were packed in the paint and in the passing lanes," Mitchell said of Northwestern. "A lot of little stuff mattered. When you get down that much against a great team like that, it's hard. You take what you get."
An earlier Buckeyes' rally, punctuated by a 3-pointer by Alston, was answered by three straight baskets set up by Ohio State turnovers. Inman, Lyon and Kunaiyi-Akpanah scored in quick succession to make it 76-64 with 5:34 left.
Lyons hit a 3-pointer in the middle of a 15-2 run that pushed Northwestern's lead to 42-20 with 3:39 left in the first half.
Ohio State: Prior to Thursday night, the Buckeyes' only losses were to the top three teams in the AP poll: No. 1 UConn, No. 2 South Carolina and No. 3 Notre Dame.
Northwestern: Freshman Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah had been solid on the boards in her first 13 games, but hadn't scored more than four points in any contest her 14-point outburst.
Ohio State hosts Purdue on Sunday.
Northwestern visits No. 8 Maryland on Sunday.
How Duke women's basketball can replace coach Joanne P. McCallie
One of the biggest coaching jobs in women's basketball is open, and the Duke vacancy will draw enormous interest. Here are 10 of the top candidates.
Duke women's coach McCallie won't return to program
Duke women's basketball coach Joanne P. McCallie reveals that she is stepping away from the program due to uncertainty as she entered the final year of her contract.
Joanne McCallie won't return as Duke's women's basketball coach
Joanne P. McCallie, who led the Duke women's basketball team to a 330-107 record in her 13 seasons and was a three-time ACC Coach of the Year, will not be returning, she said.