CHICAGO - The Buckeyes found a No. 2 scorer on Saturday afternoon in their game against the Michigan State Spartans and it was Deshaun Thomas. Junior guard Aaron Craft played one of his best offensive games of his career and had 20 points and nine assists as the Buckeyes advanced to their fifth straight Big Ten Tournament Championship Game with a 61-58 win in front of a sellout crowd at the United Center.
Thomas had 16 points on 6 of 19 shooting from the floor and 2 of 11 from distance, but Thomas may have made the most important shot of the game with the Buckeyes clinging on to a tenuous two point lead with 22 seconds left. Thomas got a friendly roll on a mid-range jumper to expand the Ohio State lead to four points and punch the Bucks' ticket to the title game against the Wisconsin Badgers who advanced after upsetting the No. 1 seeded Indiana Hoosiers in the first game of the double header.
Derrick Nix had 17 points and nine rebounds for the Spartans while Keith Appling had 16 points of his own. Michigan State dominated the paint in the first half with 20 points down low. The Buckeyes made adjustments and held MSU to eight in the second half, with two of those coming as time expired.
There was a sense of relief in the Ohio State locker room after the game and Thomas was giving all the credit for the win to his teammate and his 9-13 shooting effort while still being able to run the offense with his point guard duties.
"Really it was all this guy right here [Aaron Craft], just space out and let him go to work," Thomas said. "I was being patient, and coach said you're going to knock one down, just to be patient. I got one off the dribble, pump fake, because I knew he was supplying at me, [Adreian] Payne. So I got shot fake, pull up off the dribble, and I knocked it down."
Craft has always been humble about his talents and wasn't up for crowing about his big evening in the Windy City.
"I think we have a lot of plays that we can execute that either get me open shots or I can help create for somebody else, and tonight I found some openings and was able to knock down some shots and that definitely opened up other things for, whether it was Deshaun [Thomas] or guys like LaQuinton [Ross] that can knock down shots, as well," Craft said.
The two teams played to a near draw in the first half and Michigan State took a one-point lead to the break but the Buckeyes threw the first punch of the second frame with a 6-2 run to open up a four point lead.
Ohio State would never give up the lead for the rest of the game but the Spartans made it tight after the Buckeyes opened up an eight-point lead after a pair of Sam Thompson free throws. The Spartans would run off a 7-0 run to close it to one after Nix converted on a hoop and harm with less than two minutes to go.
Thomas's shot with 22 seconds was the only field goal that Ohio State would hit for the final 7:22 of the game. The Buckeyes only shot 50-percent from the charity strip (6-12) but were able to get enough to go down to close out the win.
"The hard part of going through 18, now 20 games in the Big Ten is it beats you up," Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. "I mean, this is as brutal as I've ever gone through. But very proud of how these guys have finished and understood, and they've gotten so much better in practice and paying attention."
The win now gives the Buckeyes a more compelling argument to land a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament while the Spartans should slide to the 3-line.
"I think we had some chances, and yet they just played a little smarter than us down the stretch," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said after the game.
The Buckeyes take on the Wisconsin Badgers at 3:30 pm (EDT) on Sunday and then will learn their NCAA Tournament itinerary after the game. While the outcome of the game will have little bearing on their draw, a chance to take two of three from Wisconsin will provide plenty of motivation for the Buckeyes as they attempt to win three games in three days.
"We know what we've got to do and get our rest tonight and get ready to play," Thomas said. "We've got to be ready from the tip off against them, because last game we weren't kind of ready. But now we've got to be ready and focused because we know Wisconsin is going to hold that ball and try to run the clock to the end. Every possession is a key, and we've got to be focusing on that."