Battered and bloodied, the Ohio State men’s basketball team gave everything it had to pull out a 69-67 victory against No. 22 Michigan State.
With some added red on their pure white jerseys from the blood spilled against the Spartans, the Buckeye players came into the postgame press conference after surviving one of their biggest games of the season.
With the game on the line, Michigan State senior center Adreian Payne fired up a 3-pointer that would have given the Spartans a two point lead. After junior forward Sam Thompson got a hand to change its course, senior guard Aaron Craft threw himself across the floor to secure the ball, the timeout and the game.
Even though Craft sustained a cut on his arm on the play, he said he just did what he had to do.
“Sam did a great job of contesting him,” Craft said. “We thought we knew what play they were going to run and he made a good play on it. Down the stretch this year we haven’t found ways to make plays like that, and at that moment, that was what I had to do for our team.”
OSU coach Thad Matta said Craft was upset right after the play because he didn’t understand why timeout had been called.
“As only Aaron Craft could do, he comes over and goes ‘Why did you call timeout? It was a possession and we don’t even have to waste the timeout’ … Just a big time play. With Lenzelle and Aaron, you look at all the memories they have in this building over the course of four years, and to end it this way is just a great feeling for a coach,” Matta said.
Michigan State sophomore guard Gary Harris had another chance at the buzzer to tie the game, but he couldn’t convert and the Buckeyes came out on top.
Craft finished the day with 12 points, seven assists and four steals. The senior also set the record for most steals in Big Ten history with a steal with 4:26 remaining in the first half.
Although an announcement was made following the play, Craft was caught off guard when told he broke the record.
“What … I honestly thought I had it already,” Craft said. “It feels good though, looking back I can tell the people around me I was decent playing basketball back in the day and I can have some proof of it.”
Even though it was Senior Day for both Craft and fellow-senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., Craft said the game was all about pulling off the victory.
“It’s a lot more fun right now than if we had lost,” Craft said. “I think that’s what Lenzelle and I wanted to do is find a way to enjoy tonight, and the best way to do that was to win the game.”
Smith Jr. echoed his backcourt teammate, adding that this win isn’t just big for the seniors, but the whole of the program.
“It means a lot, not just ending the career but to play Michigan State Spartans and to beat them, I think that says a lot about our team and at this time in the year is when teams are playing what is supposed to be called their best basketball,” Smith Jr. said. “It means a lot to me personally but this is a huge step for our team, for all of Buckeye nation. It just shows that when we come to play and we fight for each other, we can beat anybody in the country. Michigan State is a very good team, even final four level, but if we come out and play like we’re capable of, I think we can beat anybody in the country.”
The Buckeyes closed the game out with a 9-2 run over the final six minutes, including holding the Spartans scoreless for the final 4:31.
Junior forward LaQuinton Ross, who led the Buckeyes with 22 points, said the late-game stretch was indicative of what kind of team OSU is.
“I think we did what we should have been doing all year,” Ross said. “I think down near the end of the game, down the stretch, we all got together and fought. If you watch some of our old games, at the end of the game it looked like we didn’t know what we were doing out there. Tonight I think we showed what kind of team we are, what type of team people need to look forward to going into (the Big Ten Tournament).”
With Nebraska taking down No. 9 Wisconsin, 77-68, the Buckeyes head to the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 5 seed, with a first round matchup against Purdue.
The Buckeyes beat Purdue in each of their first two meetings this season — 78-69 Dec. 31 and 67-49 Feb. 8.
Thompson said getting a first round bye would be a big plus for OSU, but that the team will be focused no matter where they are seeded.
“That’d be big,” Thompson said. “We know how great of a league this is and to get a bye and not have to play that fourth game in four days, that’d be huge for us. We’ve done all that we can do today, what’s in the past is in the past. Today, we came out and wanted to beat Michigan State.”
Craft added that every team heads into the postseason with an unblemished record, so anything can happen.
“Every year, you go into postseason play and say it’s a clean slate,” Craft said. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done to this point and it’s no different here. Hopefully we can build off this momentum, but everyone’s starting 0-0 and that’s probably the most exciting part of the year.”
The Big Ten Tournament first round is scheduled to start Thursday at noon, with Indiana taking on Illinois, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. OSU’s is set to tipoff against the Boilermakers 25 minutes after the finish of the first game.