For Good or Bad, Buckeyes Roll With The Tank
By Brandon Castel
CHICAGO — Aaron Craft was the hero of Ohio State’s 61-58 win over Michigan State on Saturday. There is no discussion about that.
Ohio State’s star point guard didn’t just dominate the game defensively – the way he has so often throughout his three-year career with the Buckeyes – he took over at both ends of the floor.
While holding the Spartans’ backcourt of Keith Appling and Gary Harris to a combined 7-of-24 shooting, Craft also scored or assisted on 27 of Ohio State’s 33 points in the second half.
He scored 18 of his game-high 20 points over the final 20 minutes to help his team turn a one-point halftime deficit into a three-point victory. His performance propelled Ohio State to its fifth-straight Big Ten Tournament title game on Sunday, but it was not Craft but Deshaun Thomas who hit the biggest shot of the night.
“It hit the rim and rolled in,” Thomas said of his mid-range jumper, which gave the Buckeyes a 60-56 lead with 22 seconds to play.
“It felt great when that ball went in, and that’s just me staying aggressive and being ready.”
Thomas had already missed 12 shots in this game, including nine of his 11 tries from long-range. He was not in the kind of rhythm that would normally have lent itself to hitting such a big shot at the end of a big game, but Thomas has learned how to shake off the misses.
No matter how many.
“I know I’m a scorer and I know I’m a great shooter,” the Big Ten’s leading-scorer said.
“With Aaron’s help, I learned to get to the next play and eventually I’ll knock one down that’s very important to us.”
It was Craft, not Thomas, who had everything working him in the second half. He got to the basket for easy layups against Michigan State’s staunch frontline. He hit floaters that hung on the rim before dropping through the cylinder. He scored off glass and on step-back jumpers.
“He looked like me,” Thomas said with a smile, “he was doing it all.”
It was Craft’s second 20-point game against MSU this year, and it was just enough for the Buckeyes, who shot 52 percent from the floor in the second half thanks in large part to Craft’s 8-of-11 performance. Thomas was just 2-of-6 after the break, with three misses from behind the arc, but he never allowed himself to mentally check out of the game.
“He did a phenomenal job staying positive and staying into it,” Craft said.
“It’s really easy to get discouraged when you miss some shots he usually makes, but he knows we’re going to come to him.”
That’s one thing Craft has learn in his three years of playing alongside Thomas: confidence matters. Whenever Deshaun misses a shot, Craft is always the first one in his ear reminding him the next one is going to fall.
When it doesn’t, Craft is right there again to encourage his often emotional teammate to keep shooting.
“With someone like Deshaun, all you have to do is stay in his ear, keep him confident and let him know we’re coming back to him,” OSU senior Evan Ravenel said.
“We all know Deshaun can go 18-for-19 at any moment.”
Thomas may have struggled to believe that earlier in his career, but now he knows it now. He understands his teammates going to stay true to their word. They have to. Even when he’s off and his shots aren’t falling, Thomas is still the best weapon this team has.
“It’s unbelievable how well he can score the basketball,” Ravenel added.
“Inside and out, knocking down shots. He stretches out the defense and makes it easier for guys like Aaron Craft to get inside, or guys like LaQuinton Ross and Shannon Scott and myself to get shots.”
Tom Izzo put his best defender on him Saturday: 6-10 forward Adriean Payne out of Dayton. Thomas torched Payne and the Spartans for 28 points when these two teams met in East Lansing earlier this year, but the Buckeyes lost that game 59-56.
“After that we talked to each other and told DT to keep doing what he’s doing but we’re going to get guys to help you,” Craft said.
“It’s not just me, it’s LaQuinton coming off the bench, it’s Shannon getting easy baskets in transition. It’s Sam (Thompson), it’s everyone coming into their own and taking advantage of the opportunities that are there because Deshaun is out there on the floor.”
As long as he’s out there the Buckeyes always have a chance, because the next one is going in. Or at least that’s the way he thinks about it.
“That’s Deshaun. He’s put up a lot of shots in his life and I’ve seen him make a lot more than he’s missed,” Craft said.
“We’re going to go to him. He’s our guy down the stretch and there’s no question about it.”
Now Thomas has to deliver, too. He knows that’s part of the deal, whether he’s being covered by a 6-10 center or a 6-4 shooting guard, Thomas knows he has to score points for this team to make another long run in March.
And, of course, he’s perfectly fine with that.
“Tomorrow I’m going to be ready,” he said.
“I’m going to be the same aggressive guy and hopefully I will go 18 for 19.”
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