Columbus, OH- It was during a momentary lull in another demanding practice Saturday that Thad Matta overheard one of his players mutter something that the player thought was out of earshot of the Ohio State coach.
“Does he know we’ve got a game tomorrow?” the player griped.
The teaching point could not have been teed up more perfectly for Matta, who said he and his assistants had “gone at” the players hard in practice in the week since their loss at Indiana, their eighth in 17 Big Ten games.
“It was the perfect opportunity,” Matta recalled today, “because I said, ‘See? This is where we break, and you just broke. We can’t break tomorrow.’
“We went on and had a great practice. I told them this morning at shootaround, ‘We are a better basketball team than we were a week ago,’ and I thought we played like it today.”
The unranked Buckeyes threatened again to break down the stretch against No.22 Michigan State in their Big Ten season finale in Value City Arena. With the score tied at 67, they missed 6 of 8 free throws in the final 1:28.
But their defense never broke. Michigan State did not score after taking a 67-65 lead with 4:29 remaining. The Spartans missed four field-goal attempts and had three turnovers in their last seven possessions as Ohio State seniors Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. won their last home game for the Buckeyes, 69-67.
Ohio State forced 16 turnovers, 10 of them steals, and scored 21 points off them.
“That’s the type of team that we have to be,” said Sam Thompson, whose close-out on Adreian Payne to force a missed three-point attempt was one of the key plays in the final minute. “We’ve always been a team that leans on our defense, and today was no different.”
LaQuinton Ross scored 22 points to lead Ohio State (23-8, 10-8). The Buckeyes will be the No.5 seed in the Big Ten tournament this week and play Purdue in a first-round game at approximately 2:30 p.m. Thursday in Indianapolis.
Craft finished with 12 points, seven assists and four steals to become the sole leader in Big Ten career steals with 328. He punctuated his farewell by diving on the rebound created by Thompson’s close-out on Payne with 24.8 seconds left and Ohio State ahead by one point.
“They took the timeout (with 32.9 seconds left) and we drew up the play they ran against Wisconsin; we actually went through it at shootaround today,” Matta said. “We said, ‘All right, fellas, chances are they may try to run this again.’ We got buried (on the screen for Payne), but Sam comes out of nowhere and challenges that shot. It was an unbelievable play.”
Payne had 23 points and eight rebounds to lead Michigan State (23-8, 12-6), which had twice as many fouls as Ohio State, a fact coach Tom Izzo wryly noted when he said he was happy to finally have his entire lineup healthy.
“I got my team back,” Izzo said, “but I really didn’t get my team back because none of them were out there playing.”
Ohio State trailed by seven points with less than 12 minutes to play, by six with 9 1/2 minutes left and by five with less than 6 minutes to go but refused to quit, tying the score at 67 on a Ross runner with 3:52 left.
The only points after that were free throws by Amir Williams with 37.2 seconds left and Craft at 20.9. The Buckeyes forced a turnover by Denzel Valentine and Craft contested a shot by Gary Harris on the Spartans’ last two possessions.
“I wanted to keep him from getting to the basket and try to contest his shot as much as possible,” Craft said. “I didn’t want him to get a three off because that beats us. He got a good shot off. Luckily he was short, and Lenzelle did a phenomenal job of tipping the ball so Adreian couldn’t dunk it and make it go to overtime.”
The last seven meetings between the teams have been decided by a total of 26 points. Ohio State has won four.