It turned out that Matta had reason to worry. The Spartans gave the Buckeyes all they could handle but the home team lived up to its ranking, grinding out a physical 71-61 victory that was closer than the final margin indicates.
The Spartans opened the season ranked second in the nation but fell out of the top 25 following a January road loss to Penn State. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, were the nation's final unbeaten team until Saturday's road loss at Wisconsin.
Matta said he was not sure how they would react to a loss until the game got underway.
"There was a challenge tonight that I honestly wanted to see (how we responded)," he said. "I told them before the game, ‘I don't know how we're going to respond. I'm kind of anxious to see.' I thought they did a pretty good job of it."
The third sellout crowd of the season had plenty to voice its feelings about in this one. The two teams were whistled for a combined 38 fouls and the Buckeyes did not see their lead stretch into double digits until less than two minutes remained.
OSU (25-1, 12-1 Big Ten) closed the game on a 10-4 run, but it was a hustle play before that by freshman Aaron Craft that helped slam the door on the Spartans (14-11, 6-7).
With the Buckeyes ahead 58-53, the Spartans tried to work the ball to the block but the entry pass to Garrick Sherman forced him to nearly land out of bounds. With his momentum carrying him there, he turned and did the only thing he could do: he fired the ball back toward the backcourt.
Unfortunately for him and his teammates, the closest player to the ball was Craft. The freshman bolted across midcourt and corralled the ball just inside the three-point arc along the left side of the court. With MSU's Keith Appling desperately chasing him, Craft went up and under the basket, drawing contact as the ball banked off the backboard and through the net.
The freshmen then stepped to the line and completed the three-point play, increasing his team's lead to eight points with 5:49 remaining and effectively ending the Spartans' upset hopes.
"That's a heck of a play right here," OSU senior guard Jon Diebler said. "That's someone wanting to win. Aaron is a guy where he does the little things and that shows what kind of player he is. He doesn't take possessions off."
An emotional MSU head coach Tom Izzo described the possession as a critical play and lamented the fact that his team committed 19 turnovers that OSU turned into 23 points. Meanwhile, 26 of the game's fouls were whistled on the visitors and the Buckeyes went 23 for 29 (79.3 percent) from the charity stripe.
The Spartans, on the other hand, were 5 for 6 (83.3 percent) from the line.
"It seemed like they just walked to the line every fricking time," Izzo said. "That bothered me. We must have done a poor job covering in that respect."
Craft's backbreaker ended a 19-9 run for the home team that turned around a 44-42 deficit with 15:11 remaining in the contest.
"Aaron is like a sparkplug for this team," Matta said. "When he does that … guys are looking saying, ‘If he's going to give that, then I'm going to give that.' "
It was his only field goal of the game. Junior guard William Buford led the way with perhaps his most dominating game of the season: a game-high 23 points on 9 of 15 shooting that included a 3-for-4 performance from beyond the arc.
"I was taking what they gave me but I was trying to be aggressive," he said. "When we were running our plays they were setting great screens for me and my teammates were able to pass me the ball in places where I could score. I was hot."
He helped compensate for an off night from freshman forward Jared Sullinger. Saddled with foul trouble for much of the contest, he finished with 11 points and a season-low two rebounds. Diebler and classmate David Lighty each added 12 points. MSU was led by Kalin Lucas' 14 points.
A three-pointer from Buford with 1:08 remaining in the first half marked the 11th lead change of the stanza and gave the Buckeyes a 35-34 lead that would stand up as the teams headed into the locker room. The largest lead of the half was four points when the Buckeyes led 8-4 and 10-6.
Buford said he was fired up to hit that jumper after one of MSU's big men gave him some extra motivation.
"On that play, one of their big men started talking stuff to me and got me fired up," he said. "I was trying to get going just to shut them up. My teammates were able to get me the ball, I had a good look and I knocked it down."
That OSU held a lead was a minor miracle in itself. The Spartans connected on 62.5 percent of their shots (15 for 24), a figure that included a make on their only three-point attempt of the half. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, went 12 for 27 (44.4 percent) and got 14 points from Buford. The junior was the only player in double figures at the break and had 10 of his team's first 15 points.
OSU was also slowed by not having Sullinger for much of the period. He picked up his second foul with 7:37 remaining and headed to the bench with four points and one rebound. In his place, senior Dallas Lauderdale responded with four points but also picked up two fouls in 14 minutes of action.
MSU head coach Tom Izzo took advantage of his depth and had 10 players see at least four minutes of action in the first half. In contrast, only six Buckeyes saw that much action in the first 20 minutes.
The Spartans shot 57.4 percent and had 44 points in the paint in the loss. They also were largely without the services of typical starter Delvon Roe, who gutted out eight minutes of action after suffering a knee injury in his team's previous game.
"That's eight more minutes than any guy in this room would have played," Izzo said. "People from Ohio, you should be proud of him. That's a unique kid."