COLUMBUS (AP) — This was a fitting way for Aaron Craft to close out his final home game.
The hard-nosed point guard led Ohio State’s voracious defense down the stretch — even diving for a big rebound in the final 25 seconds — helping the Buckeyes rally past No. 22 Michigan State 69-67 on Sunday.
“Probably the poetic justice way to end the game was the way he did it,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I give him a lot of credit for that.”
A lot of Buckeyes made big plays down the stretch as the Spartans went scoreless for the final 4:30. Ohio State (23-8, 10-8 Big Ten), which will enter the conference tournament as the fifth seed after Nebraska gained the fourth spot with Sunday’s night’s win over Wisconsin, scored the final four points.
The Spartans (23-8, 12-6) had the ball with the game tied at 67, but Adreian Payne lost it to Craft with just over a minute left for Michigan State’s 16th turnover. Payne finished with 23 points.
Shannon Scott’s 14-foot jumper went in and out, but Ohio State’s Amir Williams — a Michigan native — was fouled on the rebound. The junior, a target for fans who are critical of what they believe is lethargic play, hit the second of two free throws with 37.2 seconds remaining.
Izzo called a timeout to draw up a play, but it was the Buckeyes who drew up a better scheme.
“We drew the play that they ran against Wisconsin — we actually went through it at shootaround today,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “It was like, ‘Chances are, fellas, they might try to run this again.'”
With Williams stuck inside on a screen, athletic Sam Thompson took two quick steps to close quickly, applying pressure to the 6-foot-10 Payne on a 3-pointer with 27 seconds left.
“I had to adjust my shot in the air and it came up short,” said Payne, an Ohio native who played AAU ball on the same team with Craft and former Buckeye Jared Sullinger.
With the ball bounding loose, Craft went to the floor to control it like a defensive back pouncing on a fumble. The senior was tied up on the play, but the possession arrow favored the Buckeyes with 24.8 seconds remaining.
Craft, who has suffered through a poor shooting year, then was fouled with 20.9 seconds left. He clanked the first free throw but made the second for his 12th point.
The Buckeyes were 19 of 31 at the line for the game. They made two of six foul shots over the final 90 seconds, with Craft’s free throw pushing the lead to two.
Gary Harris, who scored 12 points for Michigan State, grabbed the rebound and dribbled to the other end, but his off-balance attempt with 2 seconds left was off. Payne crashed the boards but Lenzelle Smith Jr., Ohio State’s only other senior, tipped the ball away just before the buzzer sounded.
“I just wanted to keep (Harris) from getting to the basket and try to contest his shot as much as possible,” Craft said. “He got a move, got a shot off, and luckily it was short and Lenzelle did a phenomenal job of tipping the ball so Adreian couldn’t tip-dunk it to make it go into overtime.”
LaQuinton Ross had 22 points for the Buckeyes, who had lost their last two games.
Both Ohio State and Michigan State are headed for the Big Ten tournament this week, and then will move on to the NCAA tourney.
Denzel Valentine added 11 points for the Spartans (23-8, 12-6), who have lost seven of 11.
Izzo was upset that Michigan State was called for 22 personal fouls to 12 against the Buckeyes. The Spartans were hamstrung by foul trouble all game and Harris, Branden Dawson and point guard Keith Appling each finished with four fouls.
But for most of the game, it was Ohio State which took the ball inside or drove to the hoop.
“I didn’t like the way all my guys were on the bench,” Izzo said. “I didn’t like the way we were playing, afraid to foul and afraid to move. We scored enough points to win, we shot well enough to win. They drove the ball and we couldn’t keep them in front of us. But I’ve got two of my best defenders on the bench. There were some bright spots, but a disappointing loss.”
Craft had four steals to give him 328, breaking a tie with Illinois’ Bruce Douglas to become the Big Ten’s career leader.
“I’m not worried about how I’m going to be remembered,” he said. “It’s all (about) moving forward. This is how we need to continue to play down the stretch. This needs to be our calling card.”
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