Aaron Craft’s 20 points, nine assists and four steals helped lead the No. 2 seed Ohio State Buckeyes (25-7, 13-5) to a 61-58 victory over the No. 3 seed Michigan State Spartans (25-8, 13-5) in the Big Ten tournament semi-finals on Saturday afternoon.
Craft scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half which included four straight field goals, nine points, for the Buckeyes to give them an eight point lead with about seven minutes left in the game. After Craft hit a jumper with 7:23 left to play the Spartans were able to crawl their way back into the game as they went on a 9-3 run in a six minute span to cut the OSU lead to 57-56.
With 1:27 remaining in the game, Craft drove to the bucket and was fouled hard around the neck by Michigan State’s Derrick Nix. After several minutes of reviewing the foul, the referees decided to call a flagrant 1 on Nix which gave OSU two free throws and the ball, and seemed to be the turning point in the game.
“Some of our players on the floor thought it was the right call, so hats off to them,” Izzo said. “For once in my life, the officials were correct, first time.”
Craft, who shoots nearly 80 percent from the line, connected on the first of two attempts. On the Buckeyes possession, Craft found a wide open Shannon Scott in the corner for a 3-point shot but he was not able to connect, however, Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas grabbed the offensive rebound and OSU head coach Thad Matta called a timeout. Thomas came out of the timeout and nailed a mid-range jumper to give the Buckeyes a 60-56 lead with 25 seconds left that clinched the game.
“If you look at their team, we did a decent job on (Deshaun) Thomas,” Izzo said. “I thought we did a great job on him. We were guarding him, gave him a couple shots early, made some adjustments, that was our doing, not AP’s (Adreian Payne’s).
“But we did not do a very good job on (Aaron) Craft, and he beat us in a different way. The first time he beat us getting to the hole. He almost never got to the hole and this time he beat us with his jump shot.”
After splitting the season series one to one with the Spartans, the Buckeyes rubber match victory allows them to advance to the Big Ten tournament finals and play Wisconsin tomorrow afternoon.
Despite losing a chance to win the conference tournament championship, the Michigan State Spartans had a lot of positives to take out of the loss heading into the NCAA tournament. Nix had one of his better games of the season with 17 points and nine rebounds, and Payne scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Also, junior point guard Keith Appling went 4-of-7 from behind the 3-point line on his way to 16 points. Appling was shooting under 30 percent from downtown on the season and this could be a huge confidence boost for him going forward.
The lack of offensive production from stellar freshman Gary Harris was a determining factor in the Spartans semi-finals defeat. Harris, who averaged 13.2 points per game during the season, was held to five points on 1-of-7 shooting and two turnovers.
Tom Izzo’s ball club now just has to wait and see which seed they grab on Selection Sunday, many are predicting a two but could be a three, and finish off their journey to MSU’s first national title since 2000.
After playing, and having success, in the toughest conference in all of college basketball for the past four months, Tom Izzo is looking ahead to playing some teams outside of the Big Ten, and proving that all of their hard work thus far will pay off.
“I am really looking forward to playing somebody else, and I think all the Big Ten teams are, and deservedly so,” Izzo said in regards to heading into the NCAA tournament. “We’ve beaten the hell out of each other, and we really, really, really have, and I think it’s going to help all of us in the end, as you asked. I really believe the toughest team is the one that’s been through the most, the one that can sit there at a pregame or at a halftime and say we’ve done this, we’ve been there, we’ve played these guys. It’s going to benefit.”