Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
An experienced Ohio State men’s basketball was simply too much for a highly touted but youthful Michigan team to overcome.
The No. 15 Buckeyes sat back early and picked its spots to strike on offense, eventually building a 21-point first half lead as the No. 2-ranked Wolverines ran itself into that hole with an admittedly over-excited, high-pressure defense. UM tied the game late in regulation but the steadying influence of OSU senior forward Evan Ravenel, junior forward Deshaun Thomas and junior guard Aaron Craft fended off the visitor’s comeback attempt as the Buckeyes (13-3, 3-1 Big Ten) won, 56-53, against the Wolverines (16-1, 3-1 Big Ten) Sunday at the Schottenstein Center.
Thomas, Ravenel, Craft and junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. combined for the 10 points OSU needed in the final 5:28 of regulation to pull away and clinch the team’s first win against a ranked opponent in four tries this season.
“I think we have a good backbone to lean on with me, (Thomas), (Ravenel) and Lenzelle, who have been here for three years and been with some great leaders and seen what it takes to be successful,” Craft said.
Ravenel contributed crucial buckets late in regulation before finishing with six points, while Thomas went for a game-high 20 points. Craft added nine points of his own and Smith Jr. finished with four points.
There was plenty for the Wolverines to be excited about in the game: A win would have all but guaranteed them ascension to the No. 1 spot in top 25 polls after current No. 1-ranked Duke’s Saturday loss to N.C. State. Victory also meant the possibility of a 17-0 record – a would-have-been program record.
But for the midseason rivalry game with so much on the line, four of the nine players that UM coach John Beilein sent on the floor – including two starters – were freshmen that played at least 11 minutes. One additional freshman – UM guard Caris LeVert – played nine minutes for UM.
Beilein said the excitement of the moment might have got the best of his young team.
“We got very, very excited about this opportunity and we got out and challenged too much away from our base defense,” Beilein said. “There’s a lot of challenges there that we maybe made it tougher on ourselves.”
While OSU needed a signature win to bolster its NCAA Tournament resume, Michigan earned its tournament credentials long ago – its 16-0 record to start the season and previous wins against then-No. 18 N.C. State, Pittsburgh, Kansas State and West Virginia all speak to that.
UM’s talent showed in Sunday’s game as it fought back to cut its 21-point deficit to 12 by halftime before tying the game late and even taking a shot at a potential game-winning score in the final minute.
OSU’s swarming defense, led by Craft, produced 13 turnovers. In typical Craft fashion, the Buckeyes’ third-year guard stymied one of the opponent’s best – this time, it was UM sophomore guard and Columbus-native Trey Burke. Through the opening 20 minutes, Craft limited the Northland High School product to five points on 2-of-5 shooting.
“We had too many turnovers in the beginning,” Burke said. “A couple forced shots and they made us pay.”
Burke would leave his mark on this game, though, finishing with 15 points while leading the Wolverines’ steady comeback. Trailing by two points with less than 30 seconds to play, Burke also unleashed a close-but-no-cigar 3-pointer that rimmed out. The shot was the Wolverines’ last gasp.
Ravenel scored four points in 41 seconds to restore the Buckeyes’ lead, Thomas added two points of his own to give the Buckeyes a six-point cushion at 52-46 and Craft and Smith Jr., who also grabbed 10 rebounds in the game, iced the win from the free-throw stripe after Burke’s 3-pointer swung in and out of the hoop.
“We came out with juice (and toughness),” Thomas said. “We learned our scouting report real well.”
The win allows OSU to avoid falling two games behind in Big Ten Conference play, and is further suggestion that the team’s 19-point loss at Illinois was an aberration. The Buckeyes’ 74-64 Tuesday win at Purdue add to that sentiment.
An 0-3 record in its first three games against ranked opponents could remain cause for concern, and OSU coach Thad Matta said there’s still work to be done for his team.
“We beat a great basketball team … We’ve got a long way to go,” Matta said. “I want our guys to enjoy this one, especially going into a bye week, and we’ve gotta get ready to go again (Saturday against) Michigan State.”
While OSU continues to stabilize itself, an already-elite Wolverines team could continue its growth with the experience of Sunday’s loss. After the game, Beilein suggested that he was willing to trade the narrow road loss for the maturity gained by playing in a hostile environment.
“This is terrific for us … The teams that really prosper (from losing) are the ones that get better,” Beilein said. “There’s a lot that goes (into) a season. It’s a journey. And you have to embrace an important part of it today.”
UM could be on a different trajectory than OSU, but, if only for a day and if only by a three-point margin, the veteran Buckeyes gave the fresh-faced Wolverines more than they could handle.
“We have a great backbone and those younger guys are coming along tremendously,” Craft said, “so, we’ll just continue to find a way to get better and continue to build off this.”
The Buckeyes continue Big Ten play Saturday at Michigan State with a scheduled 6 p.m. tipoff.