Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
Aaron Craft insisted all week it wasn’t about him versus Trey Burke.
But with only seconds remaining in No. 15 Ohio State’s matchup against No. 2 Michigan, that’s exactly what it came down to.
With 29 seconds left, OSU’s once dominating 21-point lead had been whittled down to two, and the sold-out crowd at the Schottenstein Center – some of which had been camping out for the game since Friday – roared in anxiety.
Isolated one-on-one against Craft, Michigan’s sophomore Player of the Year candidate stepped back and launched a three over Craft’s outstretched arm in the game’s waning seconds.
“I thought it was going to go in when I turned around,” said Craft, a junior guard.
And for a second it appeared he was right.
But then the ball rattled around the rim and squirted into the arms of a leaping junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. His free throws, along with Craft’s, put the contest away in the final 14 seconds as OSU pulled away for a grueling 56-53 victory.
The missed shot gave OSU (13-3, 3-1) its first win against a ranked team in four attempts this season and allowed the Buckeyes to remain within striking distance in the young Big Ten season.
“It’s always in the back of your mind,” Craft said. “We haven’t played our best when we played the better teams that we played throughout this year. I think we just took a step back and found a way to get a big win.”
The victory was a stark contrast to OSU’s previous contests against No. 1 Duke, No. 6 Kansas and No. 12 Illinois when the Buckeyes never shot better than 35 percent and struggled to find an offensive rhythm outside of junior forward Deshaun Thomas.
OSU shot 52 percent from the floor Sunday, and though Thomas led the way, it was far more than OSU’s leading scorer that helped the Buckeyes jump out to a commanding 20-point advantage about 10 minutes into the first half.
Craft, who has been criticized for a lack of production on the offensive end, attacked the basket early, scoring from both the outside and in. He stepped into a three in the game’s opening minutes and followed it up by twice slicing to the basket, finishing with nine points and four assists.
Sophomore forward Sam Thompson added a spark as well, equaling his season average of seven points before the nine minute mark of the first half.
Then there was Thomas, who continued his high-level of offensive play this season, with 20 points, including two 3-pointers in the first half – one of which fueled him and many of his teammates to pound their chests on the way down court.
“I was geeked, as they say,” Thomas said.
The biggest contributor of all though, might have been the Buckeye defense, which smothered the Wolverines from the opening tip.
Led by Craft, OSU forced 13 turnovers, nine of which came in the first half. Burke, junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr., and freshman guard Nik Stauskas came into the game averaging a combined 48 points per contest but were held to just 27 points on 9-for-31 shooting Sunday.
“Ohio State is a really, really good defensive team,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Really good. You’re seeing a team that plays defense, buys into it and very skilled defenders out on the perimeter.”
Behind that defense, OSU built a 29-8 advantage, but slowly Michigan started chipping away.
By halftime the lead was down to 12. A 10-0 run cut the lead to one and, with 6:59 remaining, the score was knotted up at 46.
“We stopped executing,” said OSU coach Thad Matta. “We need five guys to play and we went through a stretch there when only the guy on the screen and the guy with the ball were the only guys playing.”
But it was the Buckeyes that would write the game’s final chapter. Back-to-back buckets from senior forward Evan Ravenel and a jumper from Thomas gave OSU a six-point lead it would never relinquish. After Burke misfired on his late-game three, free throws sealed the win.
“In the past we might have splintered apart on that run,” Craft said. “But we just kind of got together and took a few deep breaths and understood that our system has worked throughout the game and it was going to work down the stretch.”
The win moves the Buckeyes to 13-3 on the year and hands Michigan, which was previously the nation’s only unbeaten team, its first loss of the season.
It also prevented the Wolverines from rising to the top of the national rankings, and though the basketball rivalry between the two schools certainly isn’t as storied or intense as it is in football, the circumstances made the win a little sweeter for the Buckeyes.
“There’s always satisfaction in denying Michigan the No. 1 spot in the country,” Ravenel said.
OSU is set to next play Michigan State Saturday in East Lansing, Mich.