COLUMBUS, Ohio — Reports of Ohio State’s demise were at least slightly premature and largely discounted the magical healing powers of point guard/human floorburn Aaron Craft.
Old guys can still win in college basketball, and Craft and his most-experienced teammates guided Ohio State to a big second half and a 68-60 win over Michigan State in another Big Ten survival game Sunday.
This conference is not for the weak of mind, body or heart, and after a first-half offensive showing that’s becoming too typical for Ohio State, the Buckeyes turned up the defense and won via role reversal with their offense.
Craft led everybody with a career-high 21 points, a job that usually falls to Deshaun Thomas. The Big Ten’s leading scorer at 19.9 per game, Thomas scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half, and Ohio State also got 10 points from its lone senior, Evan Ravenel. No. 5 Michigan State’s usually strong defense couldn’t keep Craft out of the lane and couldn’t keep No. 18 Ohio State from scoring enough to turn a 31-25 halftime deficit into a victory.
Craft scored 17 of his 21 in the second half. He also had six assists and three rebounds and down the stretch made his free throws, took a key charge and came out of a pile of very large people having forced a jump ball with 1:32 to go under Ohio State’s basket. The Buckeyes kept possession, ran more clock and eventually ran off with an entirely different feeling than they had after a humbling 22-point loss at Wisconsin a week ago.
“It was Aaron Craft,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He beat us every way he could beat us.”
The book on Ohio State is to cover Thomas and let everyone else beat you. That book says, too, to keep Craft from disrupting your offense. One is easier than the other, but Craft’s offensive aggressiveness kept Ohio State on the attack and eventually opened things up for Thomas.
“It was great to see the ball going in for Aaron,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “He was tremendous. We have great faith in Aaron’s offense, and today he was finishing. It’s a good thing for our offense because (with Craft) you know what you’re going to get on the other end. He’s the best defender in college basketball, there’s no question about it.”
Said Thomas: “People say there’s only one guy on this team who can score. It’s big for Aaron to knock down shots and take over the game.”
The bottom line Sunday was that the Spartans simply didn’t play well, and Craft’s second half heroics assured that Ohio State didn’t give it away. The Buckeyes move to 20-7 overall, 10-5 in the Big Ten and remain just a half-game behind both Wisconsin and Michigan, who are tied for third in the conference standings, and a game behind second-place Michigan State (22-6, 10-4). The top four get a bye in the conference tournament, and breathers in this Big Ten are precious few.
“This time of year, you need to find a roll,” Craft said. “We kind of did it late last year (winning two road games late to claim a share of the Big Ten title). Getting a win like this against a great team like Michigan State can only help going forward.
“This is big for this team, picking up from where we were a week ago.”
Last weekend’s 71-49 loss at Wisconsin was Ohio State at its flawed worst — short on scorers, ill-equipped to recover from an early deficit and almost totally incapable of scoring inside. After blowing out Minnesota on Wednesday night, Ohio State stayed a step ahead of Michigan State Sunday because Ravenel was a factor inside against Michigan State’s talented front line, some shots dropped and the Buckeyes turned 14 Michigan State turnovers into 19 points.
After shooting 10 of 29 in the first half, the Buckeyes made 12 of 21 in the second. With MSU leading by nine after an Adreian Payne jumper less than two minutes into the second half, Matta called a timeout, stressed defense and Ohio State answered with a 24-5 run over the next nine-plus minutes. Michigan State shot just 8 of 20 in the second half, shot 2 of 11 on 3-point tries for the game and became the 24th of 27 Buckeye opponents this season to shoot less than 50 percent.
“We won with our defense,” Thomas said.
And with a point guard who scored almost 12 points more than his average, kept seeing openings in the Michigan State defense and kept trying to exploit them.
“It doesn’t matter who scores,” Craft said. “All that matters is that we have more points at the end.”