COLUMBUS, Ohio - Nobody was quite sure how the Buckeyes would respond coming off of their first loss of the season when they stepped back on the floor against Michigan State on Tuesday night. But William Buford seemed to will the team past a lethargic first half with 23 points on 9-15 shooting while freshman phenom Jared Sullinger struggled with foul trouble as the Buckeyes (25-1, 12-1) held off a desperate Spartans (14-11, 6-7) team that wouldn't go away.
"I think for our guys, they're such great kids you feel for them when they lose," Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said after the game. I honestly wanted to see how they would respond. I thought they did a pretty good job of that."
Sullinger was saddled with early foul trouble and was held to 11 points and two rebounds. David Lighty and Jon Diebler each had a dozen points for the Buckeyes to round out the top scorers. The Spartans were paced by 14 points by Kalin Lucas but the lion's share of damage for MSU was done in the paint where Sparty held a commanding 44-26 point edge.
Almost every element of the score book trends Michigan State's way with MSU shooting 57-percent from the field (Ohio State was 43-percent) and holding an eight rebound edge. But Michigan State was its own worst enemy with 19 turnovers and the Buckeyes took advantage with a 23-8 edge off of turnovers. Plus the Buckeyes shook off some early first half foul trouble to hold a dramatic advantage from the free throw line connecting on 23-29 against Michigan State's 5-6.
"We did just about everything I wanted to do except we turned the ball over and didn't get to the free throw line," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said after the game. "We did about as good of a job on Jared Sullinger as we could tonight."
The Buckeyes and Spartans played bird-dog throughout the first half and the lead changed hands 11 times before Ohio State took a 35-34 lead into the locker room. Neither team held a lead of larger than four points during the first frame and there was a bit of a reminiscent feeling to the Wisconsin game when it came down to the fact that the Buckeyes were not able to assert their style of play or at least their brand of defense.
The tide turned Ohio State's way after Michigan State took a 44-42 lead with a little more than 15 minutes to go. The Buckeyes would go on a 16-7 run to take a seven point lead with Buford accounting for seven of the points.
Michigan State would not go away but freshman point guard Aaron Craft made his own field goal of the game after chasing down a loose ball that rolled nearly the entire length of the court and scooped it up for a layup and a foul. That effort play was huge in the big picture for the Buckeyes and while the outcome of the game may have already been essentially in hand it showed the level of effort that the team needs to achieve its goals.
"That was a heck of a play and a sign of someone wanting to win no matter what," Diebler said. "Aaron doesn't take plays off and that one led to a big bucket for us."
The Spartans were hampered by the limited play out of Delvon Roe with the Spartan big man limited to eight minutes of action and no points. It didn't appear for several days leading up to the game that he would even be able to suit up. The Buckeyes also were able to take Durrell Summers out of the game and holding him scoreless as well.
Now the Buckeyes can turn their attention to a road date with Purdue on Sunday. Last time the two teams met the Buckeyes throttled the Boilermakers in Columbus and Purdue needs a win in the worst way if it wants any chance of staying in the race for the Big Ten regular season title. Ohio State has a magic number of three with each the Boilers and Badgers individually and with the two teams meeting on Wednesday the Big Ten title is drawing closer for the Buckeyes but nobody is ready to take anything for granted.