Craft Does His Thing; Buckeyes Win
By Rob Ogden
In the final home game of his collegiate career, Aaron Craft saved his very best for last.
Defending against potential game-winning shots on three consecutive possessions with less than 30 seconds to play, Craft came up big, halting all three Spartan tries and leading Ohio State to a 69-67 win over Michigan State on senior day.
With Ohio State leading 68-67 with two seconds separating the game clock and shot clock, the senior dove on a loose ball rebound headed in the direction of a pair of Spartans.
The play was perhaps the perfect summation of Craft's four years at Ohio State, in which he became revered for his gritty play and hard-nosed defense.
"That was probably the most fitting end to an Ohio State's guys career," coach Thad Matta said about Craft. "In his last home game to make that play, I don't know that you could describe his career better than that."
On the next possession, Craft came up with a steal from Michigan State's Denzel Valentine leading to a pair of free throws for Sam Thompson.
It was the fourth steal of the game for Craft, who set the Big Ten's all-time career steals mark (325) in the first half.
"Down the stretch this year we haven't found ways to make plays like that," Craft said. "At that moment that's what I had to do for this team."
After consecutive misses from Thompson, Craft went on the defensive once more, putting a hand in the face of Michigan State's Gary Harris as a game-tying shot clanked off the rim.
"Obviously he's a taller guy so I just wanted to keep him from getting to the basket and contest the shot," Craft said. "I didn't want him to get a three off because that would beat us. The worst-case scenario would be overtime."
Michigan State led by as many as seven points in the second half, but was held scoreless in the final 4:30 of the game.
The Buckeyes jumped out to their largest lead of the game, 44-39, with 17:39 remaining in the second half, but the Spartans went on a 12-0 run to take a 51-44 advantage.
Ohio State wouldn't lead again until it was 68-67.
It seemed every time the Buckeyes inched closer, Michigan State would burry a 3-pointer to extend or retake the lead. The Spartans finished 10-for-20 from behind the arc.
Senior center Adreian Payne made 3-of-6, though he missed on his last attempt – the one that Craft dove across the middle of the floor to secure.
But Ohio State turned 16 Michigan State turnovers into 21 points, and the Spartans committed 22 personal fouls compared to only 12 for the Buckeyes.
Izzo said he was "by far" the most frustrated he's been all season, and repeatedly questioned the officiating.
Starting guards Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine each picked up their second foul midway through the first half and sat for the remainder of the half.
Dawson picked up his third foul just 16 seconds into the second half, and Valentine followed with his 47 seconds later.
"No doubt Payne and (Keith) Appling played way too many minutes because I didn't have anybody else because everyone else was in foul trouble," Izzo said.
"Half my team was on the bench half of the game, so I was sick of that."
Ohio State shot 31 free throws, but converted on just 61 percent on them.
Junior LaQuinton Ross had one of his best shooting performances of the year, converting on 9-of-15 field goal attempts and finishing with 22 points. He has recorded double figures in 13 of his past 15 games.
Craft added 12 points and four steals, and senior Lenzelle Smith Jr. had 9 points and 8 rebounds.
Payne, a Dayton native, led all scorers with 23 points.
Smith said the win was a perfect ending to what has been a turbulent regular season for the Buckeyes.
"It means a lot. To play the Michigan State Spartans and to beat them, it says a lot about our team," he said. "It means a lot to me personally, but this is a huge step for our team. If we come to play, I think we can beat anybody in the country."
Smith and Craft were honored before the game, and received a deafening ovation from a sold out crowd inside Value City Arena.
Combined, the duo has produced 2,260 points, 1,007 rebounds, 863 assists and 408 steals during the past four seasons.
Craft now sits 18th all-time on the NCAA list of career steals with 328.
Even Izzo took a moment to admire Craft's career.
"I think Craft stands for everything that I would want a player to stand for," he said. "It was an honor to coach against him for four years. He made some big plays and had a very good game. A kid like that deserves that kind of game on senior day. That was a poetic justice way to end the game."
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