COLUMBUS, Ohio – It’s an image seen so frequently the past four years: Aaron Craft diving on a loose ball. The Ohio State guard has pestered Big Ten teams throughout his career for always being in the right place at the right time. And on Senior Day, it was only appropriate that Craft would sacrifice his body once more to corral the biggest rebound of the season.
|NO. 22 MICHIGAN STATE||38||29||67|
With 24.8 seconds remaining and the Buckeyes clinging to a one-point lead, Craft dove some four feet to come down with a loose-ball rebound after Michigan State’s Adreian Payne missed a potential game-winning three. Ohio State only made one of four free throws in the final 25 seconds, but held on to win 69-67.
Craft’s airborne body, bloody elbow and nearby basketball were “poetic justice,” according to Spartan head coach Tom Izzo.
“He’s all that’s right about college basketball. He’s a great kid,” Izzo said. “It’s been an honor to coach against him for four years. He represents everything that’s right. He had a great game on senior night, and he probably deserved that.”
Said Craft, matter-of-factly: “At that moment that’s what I needed to do for our team.”
Gary Harris’ desperation jumper from the top of the key clanged off the rim with two seconds left.
Craft finished with 12 points, seven assists, four steals – breaking the Big Ten career record – and three rebounds. Fellow senior Lenzelle Smith Jr. had nine points, eight rebounds and four assists, and junior LaQuinton Ross led the Buckeyes’ scoring effort with 22 points.
It was oft-criticized Amir Williams who provided the point which kept Ohio State (23-8, 10-8 Big Ten) ahead for good – a free throw with 37 seconds left.
“After all the memories [Craft and Smith] have in this building over the course of four years, and to end it this way, it is a great feeling for a coach,” Thad Matta said.
Emotion and atmosphere aren’t the sole factors in a game’s outcome. If they were, the Buckeyes would have won going away Sunday afternoon. Instead, an actual game had to be played. And as they’ve done so often during the intertwined Matta-Izzo era, Ohio State and Michigan State put on a show bordering on classic.
“It means a lot to end like this,” Smith said. “Not just ending, but playing the Michigan State Spartans and beating them. This is a huge step for our team.”
The Buckeyes trailed by seven points midway through the second half and by five with less than six minutes to go. But Matta used a timeout after an authoritative dunk from Payne and delivered a message to his team focusing on defense. It was buckle down, or lose.
“We wanted to keep them in the half-court,” junior forward Sam Thompson said. “They’d gotten out and scored some points  in transition. We felt they couldn’t score on our half-court defense.”
Honoring the Seniors
Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. got a win in their final game at Value City Arena. The duo combined for 2,260 points, 1,007 rebounds, 863 assists and 408 steals.
Also honored were senior basketball managers Cody Anthony, Kyle Davis, Leroy Robinson Jr., Mitch Flowers and Jimmy Stanley.
In the closing sequence, No. 22 Michigan State (23-8, 12-6) was outscored 9-2 while committing five turnovers and making just one of five shots from the field. The Spartans only had one field goal in the final 4:30 and never scored after that. Poor free throw shooting from Ohio State kept the visitors in the game, though.
“Moving forward, that’s going to cost us a game,” Craft said. “It’s great we’re getting there, but we have to convert more.”
The Buckeyes only connected on two of their eight free throw attempts in the closing minutes. But the scouting report loomed large when Payne missed a three, leading to Craft’s heroics. In the pre-game shootaround, Ohio State practiced that particular play because Michigan State ran it against Wisconsin with the game on the line.
Matta guessed right that Izzo would pull it out again.
“I thought our activity was great,” Matta said. “Sam’s challenge of Payne’s three; he came out of nowhere. It was an unbelievable play. That was probably the difference for us. We kept shooting ourselves in the foot, but we did keep defending.”
The Buckeyes forced 21 points off 17 turnovers, making good on their formula that good defense creates offense.
“That’s the type of team we have to be,” Thompson said. “That’s what’s brought us success the past couple years. That’s what’s brought us success at times this year. That’s what will bring us success going forward. We’ve always leaned on our defense.”
Still, it wasn’t as if the Spartans came up small. They shot 43.6 percent from the field and made 10 threes. Payne scored a game-high 23 points, his latest in a long line of dominating performances against his home-state school.
On multiple occasions, Ohio State seized momentum of the game only to have Payne – or Denzel Valentine or Harris – come down and steal it back by draining a three. In the second half, after the Buckeyes secured a five-point lead, Michigan State responded with a 12-0 run to silence the 18,809 in attendance.
Stops down the stretch, however, came often for Ohio State. It’s been a time period that’s plagued hard-luck Buckeyes much of the season.
“I thought it was one of our most consistent defensive efforts of the season,” Matta said. “That was a high-powered college basketball game. The biggest key for us was our half-court defense down the stretch to win the game.”
Izzo lamented Michigan State’s foul trouble. Appling, Harris, Valentine and Branden Dawson spent valuable minutes on the bench. All but Dawson (three) ended the game with four fouls. In previous weeks – and even months – injuries have been the Spartans’ kryptonite.
The pre-season No. 2 team in the country and unanimous favorite to win the Big Ten used 15 different starting lineups. That contributed to a limp to the regular-season finish line. Michigan State was 5-7 in its last 12 games.
- OSU held MSU to one field goal over the final 6:27 and scoreless over the final 4:30.
- With four steals, Aaron Craft passed Bruce Douglas of Illinois (324) as the B1G's all-time steals leader with 328.
- OSU enters the Big Ten tournament as a five seed and will play No. 12 Purdue at 2:30 p.m. Thursday (BTN).
Aside from fouls and officiating, an unruly Ohio State fan got under Izzo’s skin as he walked to the locker room after the game.
“She was a jerk, to be honest with you,” he said. “You want the truth, or do you want me to lie?”
Sunday’s victory ended a two-game losing steak for the Buckeyes. They’re hoping one win can jump-start another memorable March. The past four seasons, Craft and Smith have been part of 117 wins. The other constant, besides marking W’s in the win column, is the ability to play their best basketball in the proper month.
Their final season has strayed off path more than once, though. A 15-0 start gave way to five losses in six games, then came a stretch of winning followed by another losing streak. The only consistency is being inconsistent. Now, Craft and Co. are poised to correct that trend.
“We’ve had a couple big wins this year and we haven’t bounced back the way we’ve needed to. Hopefully we can build off this momentum,” Craft said. “But, at the same time, everyone’s starting off 0-0. It’s the most exciting time of the year.”
Said Smith: “Everyone knows what this team is capable of. When we come to play, we play good basketball.”
NOTE: Ohio State is the 5 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and plays 12th-seeded Purdue in Indianapolis at approximately 2:30 p.m. Thursday.