Flashback to February 24th. The Buckeyes were trailing by six points at the half to the Michigan State Spartans in The Schott. Deshaun Thomas was struggling (1-for-8 shooting), and the Buckeyes needed another scorer to step up their game. Enter Aaron Craft, who scored 17 of his career high 21 points in the second half as he carved up the Spartan defense with patient but effective dribble penetration off the high ball screen. The Buckeyes would go on to win that game by a 68-60 count.
History does repeat itself sometimes. The Buckeyes trailed at the half once again (by one this time). Deshaun Thomas was off with his shot (4-for-13 shooting), and the Buckeyes needed a second scorer to help Thomas. Aaron Craft answered the bell once again in heroic fashion. Eighteen of Craft’s 20 points came in the back-and-forth second half, and the Buckeyes weathered an incredible seven minute field goal drought in the final seven and a half minutes of the game to hold on for a 61-58 victory and advance to the Big Ten Championship Game tomorrow afternoon in Chicago.
Both teams started this game out with a lot of outside shots. The two traded a pair of three pointers each early, and the Buckeyes kept shooting from outside. Deshaun Thomas didn’t have it going from there, but thankfully, a number of others were able to connect. Thomas was just 2-of-11 from beyond the arc, but the rest of the team made 5-of-13 shots from long range. In their first matchup, Thomas scored a conference season-high 26 points for him, connecting on 6-of-11 three pointers. With the strong but post-oriented defender Adreian Payne covering him for long stretches, fading off of ball screens and taking a quick three was something that remained opened. It’s a scary notion, however, to see Thomas keep shooting long shots when he’s cold instead of going inside to score. That’s something they should keep in mind for today and the upcoming tournament games.
The Buckeye bench brought it again today in a big way. LaQuinton Ross is really shooting it confidently, as he added another 9 points to the cause, hitting 3-of-5 shots in 15 minutes. Ross also seems to be getting more comfortable in both handling the ball and defending. If the Buckeyes make an extended run in the tourney, I envision it will be because Ross gave them at least one double-digit scoring game. They need him. With Scott, Ravenel, and Ross came a focus on early offense instead of late-shot-clock heaves. Back-to-back possessions for Deshaun Thomas highlighted this, one jumper on a push up the floor from Scott and another layup off a baseball pass from Craft.
The one guy for Michigan State who really had it dialed in was their big man Derrick Nix. It didn’t matter whether it was Ravenel, Williams, or Thomas covering him, Nix was efficiently scoring or passing it to a guard when the double team came for a good open shot. He led his team in scoring at the half with 10 as he brute force attacked his way to layups and was converting from the line as well. The only problem was that they went away from him too much in the second half. He finished with a team-high 17 to go with 9 boards.
Speaking of brute force, there was plenty of it in this game. The officiating crew, led by “TV” Teddy Valentine was letting everything go in the first half. Just five fouls total were called (four on Michigan State). Valentine absolutely whiffed on a fastbreak layup call where Sam Thompson was completely tomahawked by Nix and collapsed to the ground. In an attempt to make up for the lack of calls in the first, they then called 9 fouls in the first nine and a half minutes of the second half, SEVEN of those on the Buckeyes, putting Michigan State in the bonus. I was having flashbacks of last year’s Big Ten championship where Michigan State took advantage of what Valentine and his crew weren’t calling and physically outplayed OSU in a tight four-point loss. Ohio State for the most part plays good, sound, fundamental defense and is stressed not to foul. Michigan State with their big guys is much less subtle and can (or should) rack up the fouls. When they get a crew like Valentine’s, however, all bets are off.
But thankfully, it was Craft and no one else that stole the show in the second half. He started turning the corner at the top of the key off the screen and attacking the hoop. Michigan State’s bigs aren’t the quickest, so there were several occasions where Craft turned the corner and had a free lane all the way to the hoop. But, Craft also mixed in his mid-range game, which was flipped into the “ON” position today. He’s been inconsistent out there, but Craft shot it confidently from foul-line range, backing up a couple of times after penetration and letting a contested shot go. In one of Craft’s best stat lines as a Buckeye, he scored 20 points on 9-of-13 shooting, dished out 9 assists, picked up 4 steals, and accounted for just 2 turnovers. He also helped slow Keith Appling, who did score 16 points. However, it took him 17 shots to do it, and he was just 2-of-10 inside the three-point arc. When Aaron Craft plays like this and Deshaun Thomas gives his regular scoring effort, few teams can beat Ohio State.
Points off turnovers and fastbreak points both were 11-0 in favor of Ohio State. Ohio State had 17 assists compared to just 5 turnovers, and they assisted on all 11 first half field goals, a rare feat. Meanwhile, the Spartans turned it over 12 times and had only 10 assists.
Michigan State’s big men sure had some second half blunders. From Payne hanging on the rim to allow a would-be missed layup from Ravenel to Payne rolling the ball in without Appling looking, only to have Shannon Scott steal it and get fouled. Then, came the foul that really turned the tide. In the final ninety seconds, Aaron Craft broke free for what would have been another easy layup, but Nix reached above Craft’s shoulders, yanking him down to the floor violently (as shown above). After a review, I was surprised that the lousy officiating crew actually signaled a flagrant-one foul on Nix, giving Craft two shots and OSU the ball. It was the right call, not violent and excessive enough for ejection.
As I mentioned before, the Bucks couldn’t buy a field goal, but their only one in the final seven minutes of this game was perhaps the most crucial. After the flagrant one foul, Shannon Scott missed a wide open corner three off the penetration kick from Craft as the shot clock wound down, but a Ravenel tip later, Deshaun Thomas came out of the pack with it, allowing the Bucks to drain the clock even further. Out of a timeout with 32 seconds left, the Buckeyes drew up a brilliant play. On the left side, Shannon Scott curled around first as Ravenel set a half-hearted screen, but the action drew in the big man helper in Nix, allowing Thomas to curl in right after him as Ravenel set a fierce screen this time. Thomas got the ball at the three point line, made one hard dribble, and fired it from the left elbow. As it rattled in, it gave the Buckeyes a 4-point lead with 22 seconds remaining.
The Buckeyes did it defensively, too, to come away with the win. On the next MSU trip, Appling wanted to get to the hole, but as he drove down the right side, Craft switched with Thompson. Thompson stayed right on Appling and belted his shot attempt out of the air as the Buckeyes recovered it and iced the game. Michigan State shot just 40% for the game and 30% for the second half. NOBODY tightens the screws like Ohio State can on defense when they’re rolling.
Tomorrow, the second seed Buckeyes will take on the fourth seed Wisconsin Badgers in the Big Ten Championship Game. The last time these two played was a low point in the Buckeyes’ season. They were absolutely obliterated in Madison from the start, and it was at the same time the turning point in their season. From that point on, they’ve played as well as anyone in the nation with a 7-0 record with wins over Indiana and Michigan State (twice) in the process. Wisconsin will junk it up, but the Buckeyes have proven in Columbus against the Badgers as well in other games that they’re capable of winning ugly too. If they can pull it off and beat the Badgers, no matter how ugly the scoreboard is, that Big Ten trophy would be oh so beautiful.
(Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)