Ohio State’s Aaron Craft makes life difficult for Michigan State's Keith Appling in the first half. The Findlay native and Buckeyes senior set the Big Ten mark for career steals in the win on Sunday.
COLUMBUS — Aaron Craft came to the interview room after Ohio State’s 69-67 win over 22nd-ranked Michigan State with a bloodied towel wrapped around his forearm — the result of what he called "more than a surface cut."
Buckeyes teammate Sam Thompson arrived with his jersey splattered in red.
A clarification seemed necessary.
"Yeah, that's my blood," Thompson said, smiling.
Ohio State’s meetings with Michigan State rarely fail to yield a black-and-blue thriller, and the Buckeyes’ unsparing win Sunday was no different.
Before an ear-splitting sold-out crowd of 18,809 at Schottenstein Center, Ohio State (23-8, 10-8 Big Ten) used its defensive performance of the season to close out a game that left few unscarred — and tempers inflamed afterward.
In a rivalry in which the past seven games have been decided by a combined 26 points, the Buckeyes finished on a 9-2 run, holding in place a Michigan State team that had its full complement of stars — including projected first-round NBA draft picks Adreian Payne and Gary Harris. The Spartans (23-8, 12-6) did not score in the final 4:30 and went 1 for 5 from the field with five turnovers in the last 5:58.
If there was one encapsulating image, it was with Ohio State leading by a point with 24.8 seconds left. Craft dove headlong to corral the rebound from a contested 3-pointer by Payne, and the Buckeyes called a timeout to keep possession. The senior guard from Findlay thrust his fist skyward, and the usually sterile arena rocked, reaching its loudest level of the year.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called the play "poetic justice" — fitting for both the way it defined Craft’s career and the Buckeyes’ night.
"I thought that we defended down the stretch as well as we could defend," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "We had to, and that was the thing we kept saying. The last eight minutes, it was on."
And that went double in the final minute.
It was a sharp break from much of the game. The 6-foot-11 Payne had his way inside and out in scoring a game-high 23 points while MSU hit 10 of 20 3-pointers, forcing Ohio State to display more than its usual off-and-on offense to keep up. LaQuinton Ross had 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting, while Craft, who was honored on Senior Day along with Lenzelle Smith, Jr., added 12 points to complement another virtuoso defensive effort.
By the end, though, the Spartans — a team billed as the class of the Big Ten when healthy — had no answer for Ohio State’s league-best defense. Center Amir Williams made one of two free throws with 37.2 seconds left to push OSU ahead 68-67, and the Buckeyes held on despite missing 3 of 4 free throws in the final 21 seconds.
In succession, Payne missed the 3, Denzel Valentine was a casualty of Craft’s fourth and last steal, and Gary Harris missed a last-chance runner with two seconds left.
Izzo later corrected a reporter who suggested the stretch run was a slugfest, saying, "We weren’t slugging."
"If any of you from Ohio think this is the old smashmouth Michigan State state team, you're kidding yourself," said Izzo, who also blistered the officials after Ohio State shot 21 more free throws than the Spartans. "We’re a little wimpier than usual."
Adding insult to the loss, Izzo had to be held back afterward from a woman who leaned over the visitors’ tunnel as he left the floor.
"She was a jerk, to be honest with you," he said, declining to repeat what the fan said. "You want the truth or do you want me to lie?"
Ohio State, meanwhile, is bound for the Big Ten tournament as the No. 5 seed. The Buckeyes, who were coming off consecutive losses, will play 12th-seeded Purdue at about 2:30 p.m. on Thursday in Indianapolis.
"I think this game will be a huge boost for us," Smith said. "I’m excited to see what kind of basketball we'll start playing now that our train is rolling."