COLUMBUS, Ohio - The label on Ohio State guard Aaron Craft is that he is a defense-first type of player but on Sunday the Buckeye point guard found his offensive rhythm and went off for a career high 21 points as the Buckeyes picked off the No. 4 Michigan State Spartans 68-60 in front of a loud crowd at Value City Arena.
"We saw some thing during the first game this season that we thought we could take advantage of tonight," Craft said. "We didn't do a great job of challenging their bigs and doing pick-and-rolls down the floor. When guys make shots from outside, that opens up the lane and we were able to capitalize on that tonight and make layups."
Ohio State head coach Thad Matta has been waiting for a second player to step up and score and while Aaron may not be the natural pick the guard chose the right game to go off.
"Aaron had some great reads," Matta said. "His teammates helped him to get much better spacing than we normally have. He attacked the rim well and had a lot of shots going in."
Deshaun Thomas chipped in 14 points of his own but was not getting his shot to fall as he went 4-16 from the field but hit a pair of big three-pointers, including one that sparked a 21-5 run for the Buckeyes. Evan Ravenel had 10 points off the bench as well.
Michigan State was led by Gary Harris and his 14 points while Adreian Payne had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Derrick Nix had 12 points of his own.
Ohio State was held to 35-percent shooting in the first half from the field while the Spartans shot 50-percent. Michigan State took a six point lead to the halftime locker room but the margin felt much larger to the Buckeyes and their faithful after leading by three points in the half and playing a sloppy first 20 minutes of the game.
"I told my players at halftime we had some great looks but we have to put the ball in the basket," Matta said after the game. "Defensively we challenged Michigan State to defend us."
The opening moments of the second half didn't favor Ohio State as well as Harris drained a tree pointer to move the lead up to nine and after a Craft drive, a Payne jumper pushed the game to 36-27 and it felt to Buckeye fans that the game was starting to slip away.
Often times this season the Buckeyes have not been able to respond to that kind of adversity but something was different on Sunday and when it appeared that things were looking their worst, Thomas stepped up and answered the call with a three pointer to cut the lead to six points and force the Spartans to call a 30-second timeout.
"Coach wanted us to be aggressive on defense and draw some turnovers," Thomas said. "Momentum was on our side after I hit that three in the corner. Our defense led to our offense."
By the time the dust settled some eight minutes of game time later, the Buckeyes found themselves up by 10 points, 51-41 with less than 10 minutes of game time left to be played.
It appeared that the Buckeyes were going to runaway with it at that point and at the four minute mark the Buckeyes held a nine point lead but the Spartans made a run after the Spartans went on a 7-0 run to cut the lead to two points after a Harris made lay-up and free throw.
But it was Craft who had the answer and a driving layup expanded the lead back up to four points and the Spartans would only score one more point for the final 2:41 and the game was punctuated with an emphatic block by Ravenel of Keith Appling with 44 seconds left and the Buckeyes pulled off the home upset of the Spartans, 68-60.
"I am disappointed that we haven't shown the grit we showed in the last two games which normally happens when you get fat and sassy and I think we've gotten a little bit of that," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "I take no credit away from Ohio State… they played an okay first half and a very good second half and they deserved to win that game."
The Buckeyes are now 2-7 against ranked teams in 2013 and still have a game against No. 1 ranked Indiana in Bloomington (to go along with games against Northwestern and the home finale against Illinois). Ohio State is still trying to keep pace in the chase to secure a first round bye in the Big Ten Tournament but will need to finish in the top-four (currently in 5th place in the loss column) of the league to avoid playing on Thursday.