COLUMBUS: All year long Ohio State’s fans wondered whether Aaron Craft — one of the nation’s top defenders — would ever make major contributions at the other end of the court.
He picked the perfect time to finally break loose.
Craft continually slashed through the lane for a career-high 21 points on Sunday — more than he had scored in the last three games combined — to lead the 18th-ranked Buckeyes to a 68-60 victory over No. 4 Michigan State.
“Give Aaron Craft credit. In the second half, he tore us apart,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “It was Aaron Craft. He beat us every way you could beat us.”
The pesty, bothersome junior defensive specialist hit 7-of-12 shots — almost all of them on drives through a thicket of players in the paint.
The loss crippled the Spartans’ hopes of catching top-ranked Indiana, which now leads the Big Ten race by two full games with four remaining.
Freshman Gary Harris had 14 points, Derrick Nix 12 and Adreian Payne 12 points and 15 rebounds for the Spartans (22-6, 11-4), who have dropped two in a row after winning 11 of 12.
It also boosted Ohio State’s flagging postseason resume. The Buckeyes came in having won just a single game in eight starts against teams in the Associated Press Top 25 — but were 18-0 against unranked teams.
Counting a 56-53 win over No. 2-ranked Michigan on Jan. 13, it was the first time that Ohio State has ever beaten two top-5 teams at home in the same season.
No wonder the fans sang, “We don’t give a damn for the whole state of Michigan” in the final minutes.
The big win came a week after the Buckeyes looked listless in an embarrassing 71-49 loss at Wisconsin. They took the first step with a convincing 71-45 win over Minnesota before topping the Spartans.
“We beat two really, really good basketball teams,” coach Thad Matta said. “Minnesota at one point this year was in the top 10 and these guys were No. 4 in the country. This was a big week for us — home, away, wherever — especially coming off of that game last week.”
Deshaun Thomas added 12 of his 14 points in the second half for the Buckeyes (20-7, 10-5), who stand fifth in the conference. Evan Ravenel added 10 points and a crucial block in the final minute.
Michigan State led 36-27 after a Payne jumper from the left baseline early in the second half which all but quieted a crowd of 18,809.
But the Buckeyes didn’t back down, scoring 18 of the next 23 points to take the lead for good.
With Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Thomas hitting 3s and Amir Williams, a Detroit native, dunking inside and then completing the three-point play, the Buckeyes scored points in transition, played tenacious defense and kept up on the boards to take the lead, 45-40.
After a Nix free throw temporarily ended the spell, Ohio State continued its onslaught.
LaQuinton Ross poured in a 3 from in front of the Buckeyes bench off an assist pass from Craft. Ravenel added a free throw before Craft once again sped through the heart of Michigan State’s defense for a layup in traffic to push the lead to 51-41 with under 9 minutes left.
Craft has not provided much offense all year for an Ohio State team that has been begging for a scorer to back up Thomas. Against a Michigan State team which prides itself on its defense, and with quality defenders on the perimeter, he seemed to always be racing to the rack with no one in front of him.
“The game came down to us defending,” Izzo said. “That’s what we’re usually pretty good at — and we’re not very good right now.”
Craft, with just 17 points in the last three games, hadn’t hit double digits in half of the Buckeyes’ 14 conference games.
Two foul shots apiece by Nix, Payne and Harris pulled the Spartans to 61-59, but Craft sped by Keith Appling for a lunging layup with 2:22 left.
After a free throw by Appling, Ravenel, the only senior on Ohio State’s roster, was fouled and he hit both shots to push the lead to 65-60 with 1:13 left.
With the Buckeyes still hanging on by five with 25 seconds left, Appling — who was 1-for-6 from the field and had three turnovers and just one assist in 34 minutes — drove to the basket but Ravenel came across and watted it away.
The Spartans wouldn’t score again.
Izzo said later that he’d never seen Craft so aggressive. The Spartans agreed on his impact on the game.
“He played a terrific game,” Harris said. “He got a lot of easy baskets at the rim. There were a lot of miscommunications by us at the defensive end.”
Craft spread the praise to his teammates but said the Buckeyes had learned something from how passive they were earlier in a 56-53 loss at Michigan State.
“We saw some things we thought we could take advantage of,” he said. “The first game I don’t think we did a good job of challenging their bigs. It really helps when guys are knocking down shots from the outside because it opens lanes up. We made some layups today.”