COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Ohio State did its best to forget its only loss.
Michigan State served notice that, as is annually the case, it may just be a force to be reckoned with in the postseason.
William Buford scored 23 points and Aaron Craft had a hand in two critical plays down the stretch to lead the No. 2 Buckeyes to a 71-61 win over the Spartans on Tuesday night.
It was a hard-fought struggle for Ohio State (25-1, 12-1 Big Ten), playing for the first time since having their unbeaten season ended with a 61-57 loss at Wisconsin on Saturday.
”One loss doesn’t make or break a season,” said freshman center Jared Sullinger, who came in averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds and was limited to 11 and 2. ”We just wanted to come out and get the win.”
Jon Diebler and David Lighty each had 12 points. Craft, a freshman substitute point guard, had seven points, four assists, four steals and three rebounds – and a hustle play that was the talk of both head coaches.
Kalin Lucas led the Spartans (14-11, 6-7) with 14 points, while Adreian Payne and Draymond Green each had 10. They’ve lost six of their last eight but fought hard throughout.
”I wouldn’t count us dead yet,” an emotional coach Tom Izzo said. ”This is a pretty good team if we can regroup down the stretch and get three guys to play together instead of just two.”
As he left the postgame interview room, he repeated, ”We ain’t dead yet.”
The Buckeyes finished the game on an 18-10 run to pull away on a night when nothing came easily for either team.
The game turned on two quick defensive stops.
With the Buckeyes hanging on to a 45-44 second-half lead, Buford stepped in front of a bad pass by Lucas and went coast to coast for the basket. The next time down the floor, Craft forced Lucas to give the ball up in the backcourt, leading to two free throws by Diebler. After the Spartans scored a second-chance bucket, Diebler flipped in a line-drive 3 from the top of the key for a 52-46 lead.
A capacity crowd of 18,809 roared its approval.
Diebler hit two 3-pointers to move into a tie for second with Michigan State’s Shawn Respert, one back of Big Ten career 3-point leader Pete Lisicky of Penn State, with 332.
Asked the turning point of the game, Matta pointed to the defensive pressure.
”It was some of the defensive plays we made,” he said. ”Will had a steal and Aaron had a steal. … We weren’t defending as well as we need to and those gave us the lead.”
Now on top, the Buckeyes relied on Buford.
After Michigan State had cut it to 53-51, Buford hit consecutive jumpers – the first a 3 from the left wing and the second a stop-and-pop jumper from 15 feet to make it 58-51.
”Every shot I take I think it’s going to go down,” the junior said.
Craft came up with a big effort play soon after.
As the ball was going out of bounds under the Michigan State basket, center Garrick Sherman turned and fired it down the court. For an instant no one reacted. But then Craft sped the length of the floor, corralled the ball and hit a twisting reverse layup while being fouled. He completed the three-point play.
Craft also figured in another pivotal play. With the Buckeyes on top 66-59, he had a steal and was fouled by Green at the other end with 1:42 left. Green was then assessed a technical foul. Craft stepped to the line and hit three of the four shots to swell the lead to 69-59, the biggest of the game for either team to that point.
Izzo twice referred to Craft’s big plays during his postgame remarks.
Of Green’s technical, he said, ”He blew up at himself. It was probably deserved. I don’t have any problems with that. I have more problems with us not chasing down a loose ball.”
Near the end, Ohio State fans taunted the Spartans – who have made it to the Final Four in six of the last 12 seasons – with a cheer of ”N-I-T! N-I-T!”
The Buckeyes were 23 of 29 at the free-throw line to the Spartans’ 5 of 6, another aspect of the game that rankled Izzo.
”It just seemed like they walked to the line every freakin’ time,” he said.