CHICAGO-The quest for a Big Ten tournament championship lives on for Ohio State.
After routing tenth-seeded Nebraska by 21 points Friday night, the No. 2-seeded Buckeyes (25-7) used a second-half surge to eliminate No. 3-seeded Michigan State, 61-58, at the United Center in Chicago.
Like he did in a Feb. 24 win against the Spartans (25-8), junior guard Aaron Craft slashed and charged his way to the basket for 20 points-18 of which came in the game’s final 20 minutes.
Junior forward Deshaun Thomas added 16 and sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross came off the bench and chipped in nine points on 2-of-3 shooting from behind the arc.
It was Craft’s play, though, that ultimately guided the Buckeyes to their seventh straight win since a 22-point loss to Wisconsin on Feb. 17 in Madison, Wis.
OSU coach Thad Matta said it’s a evidence of a team playing its best basketball at perhaps the best time.
“I think that when we stay connected, both offensively and defensively, when we don’t panic, when things don’t go well-I think we can play with anybody in the country,” said Matta, who improved to 7-0 in Big Ten tournament semifinal games.
“I mean, to win whatever we’ve won in a row right now in this league and some of the things we’ve had to do, I think that’s probably the thing that I’m most proud of. And we’re not done yet-I know that. But as I told them when our backs were against the wall, you’ve answered the call for a while here.”
And, rather coincidentally-perhaps even bizarrely-OSU will play the Badgers Sunday for the conference’s tournament championship.
But it might’ve not been that way if not for Craft.
“He got his shot going, really. And when he gets his shot going, he’s impossible to stop,” said sophomore guard Shannon Scott. “He got to the middle, hit some jump shots, hit his threes. The defense couldn’t guard him after that.”
But before that, the game’s first act unfolded in a manner fitting of a heavyweight bout featuring two teams ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll.
OSU and MSU traded 3-point shots before Tom Izzo’s squad mobilized its attack away from the perimeter and closer to the basket.
There, the Spartans, led by senior forward Derrick Nix, bullied sophomore center Amir Williams en-route to 20 points in the paint in the first half.
Nix, who finished the day with 17 points, spent the period posting up Williams before rolling past him to lay the ball in overhead. The veteran’s ability to control the glass helped the Spartans withstand a half that saw the lead change six times by no more than six points.
“They’re always a physical team for us,” Scott said. “They got a lot of big athletes, so we just know we got to match their physicality.”
For some time, it appeared the Buckeyes would struggle to do that.
While MSU found traction underneath the basket, OSU struggled to find a similar footing and opted to continue a 3-point barrage that connected 36 percent of the time.
But without a solid presence in the paint, the Buckeyes struggled to do much of anything else, as Thad Matta’s crew shot just 34 percent from the floor-including a 4:26 scoring drought to end the first half.
MSU headed into the game’s intermission with a 29-28 advantage, but it didn’t last long.
Behind largely the play of Craft, the Buckeyes quickly rallied past their one-point deficit and flipped the script on the Spartans in the paint, tallying a 14-6 advantage in the second half.
“I think we really focused on trying to keep them out of the paint, we knew they were going to try and go in there all game like the first two times we played them,” Scott said.
“We made it a part of ourselves to keep (them) out of there.”
On the other end of the floor, rather than sniping from afar at MSU’s veneer, OSU started started to attack it from within.
“I think we just needed to have that better understanding of what’s a good
three and what’s a three we can pass down to maybe get another pass and really try to find ways to get into the lane,” Craft said. “At times we have really good spacing that really opens up avenues and lanes for myself and others to drive in, and those are good threes, kind of outside looking in type threes, and knock down some pull-ups.”
That blueprint Craft articulated after the game was nearly identical to the one executed about 30 minutes earlier.
After a shaky outing in the first half, OSU finished the day shooting 42 percent and 29 percent from the 3-point line.
Aside from their ability to outscore the Spartans in the paint in the second half, perhaps most notable was how the Buckeyes helped force 12 MSU turnovers while limiting their own miscues to five.
And in a game that ultimately came down to clock’s last seconds, OSU outscored the Spartans in points off of turnovers, 11-0.
At the 11:42 mark of the second half, the Buckeyes established a lead it would not surrender.
But it didn’t stop the Spartans from trying to reach their second-straight Big Ten tournament championship game.
After falling behind as many as eight points down the game’s stretch, MSU would cut the Buckeyes’ advantage to four thanks to a 3-pointer from Spartan junior guard Keith Appling with 2:52 to play.
A minute later, Nix would complete a three-point play after being fouled on a layup to pull within one.
On the ensuing possession, though, Nix was whistled for a flagrant foul on Craft. The junior guard made 1-of-2 free throws to extend the Buckeyes’ lead, 58-56.
Still with the ball, a line-drive jumper from Thomas with 18 seconds to play would all but seal OSU’s second win against MSU this year.
It’s why Scott said the Buckeyes have confidence in their leading scorer-even when he’s having what could be deemed an off day.
“The thing about Deshaun is like he could miss two or three shots but we know-we trust him enough to make the next shot,” he said.
Now, said junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., OSU’s attention turns to the team that last defeated it.
“I’m kind of mad and pissed off that we lost like that at their home,” he said. “So now that we get another crack at them, it’s game on.”
OSU is set to play Wisconsin for the Big Ten tournament championship Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at the United Center in Chicago.