COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says that’s not a bubble Ohio State is sitting on — it’s a rock.
Senior Jamar Butler said goodbye to the home crowd with 20 points and Ohio State beat Michigan State (No. 18 ESPN/USA Today, No. 17 AP) 63-54 Sunday, closing out the game with a 15-2 run to enhance its prospects of landing an NCAA tournament berth.
“Do I think Ohio State is deserving of being in the tournament? Hands down,” a disappointed Izzo said. “The problem is our league gets so maligned by people — and for what reason I don’t know. But, yeah, I think Ohio State deserves to be in. They beat two ranked teams down the stretch and they played one of the tougher schedules early.”
Othello Hunter added 13 points, including a pivotal one-handed jam of a rebound in the closing minutes, David Lighty scored 12 and Kosta Koufos 11 for the Buckeyes (19-12, 10-8), who most experts think are touch and go to get into the tournament.
“They’ve done what they had to do,” coach Thad Matta said of his players. “You knock off two top teams, these guys are playing very good basketball right now. You hope people remember kind of where we started and now how we’re finishing.”
Ohio State’s NCAA hopes were considered dead after it lost four in a row before beating No. 15 Purdue 80-77 in overtime on Tuesday night.
Raymar Morgan had 19 points for Michigan State (24-7, 12-6), which was frazzled by Ohio State’s defense down the stretch, missing its last six shots from the field with three turnovers. The Spartans’ problems began when Morgan picked up three fouls in the first 3:15 of the second half.
“Morgan played an incredible game. We just couldn’t keep him on the floor long enough,” said Izzo, who referred two or three times in his postgame remarks to the officiating. “Chris Allen played very well. After that, you’re going to have to go far to find a pulse.”
Despite making runs all day, the Buckeyes didn’t break through until a hand-check foul put Butler, one of the nation’s top free-throw shooters, at the line with 4:41 left. He hit both shots — the Spartans were deep into the double-bonus by then — to put Ohio State ahead 53-52 for its first lead of the game.
Butler said the game turned when the Buckeyes started playing more aggressively at both ends.
“There was a lot of time left in the game,” he said. “[We said to] keep fighting, that we’ve just got to chip away at the lead and we’ll take each possession one at a time. We did a better job with it.”
At the other end, the Spartans were patient, maybe too patient. Drew Neitzel threw up an off-balance 15-foot fadeaway that missed the rim and resulted in a shot-clock violation.
Ohio State then made it 55-52 when Butler fired a pinpoint pass that Hunter caught for a dunk with 3:35 left.
After Kalin Lucas hit a pair of foul shots for the Spartans, Koufos made a 10-foot half-hook from the baseline and then tried to muscle a shot over Goran Suton. Hunter came in to grab the rebound with his left hand and dunk it, leading to wild cheers from the large crowd at Value City Arena.
“I pulled a Shaq,” Hunter said with a laugh.
The Buckeyes’ defense — or maybe the Spartans’ indecision — was the difference down the stretch. Michigan State had two critical shot-clock violations in the last 4 minutes.
There won’t be a big turnaround to the rematch. The teams meet in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals on Friday.
Asked what the Buckeyes did differently on defense with the game on the line, the Buckeyes turned into a barbershop trio.
“Playing hard.” senior Matt Terwilliger said.
“Pressuring them.” Butler added.
“Checking somebody,” Lighty said.
Then they glanced at each other, and broke down laughing.