Shannon Scott rushed a potential game-tying three-pointer in the final seconds instead of getting the ball to Thomas, and the missed shot allowed the home-standing Spartans to finish off a 59-56 victory over the No. 11 Buckeyes in front of 14,797 fans in the Breslin Center.
After Keith Appling – who scored MSU's last six points of the game to break a 53-all tie – corralled the rebound to end the game, Thomas was visibly upset he didn't get an opportunity to continue his standout performance, while Scott could only double over after the handshake line and pull his jersey over his head.
"(Coach) said if they tried to foul you, try to throw it up, and I think that's what Shannon was trying to do," Thomas said. "In the heat of the moment, in this environment, for a young guy like him, he was just listening to what Coach said. I was knocking shots all night. I mean, why not (shoot it) or create something for my other teammates? But hey, it was one of those moments."
The ending overshadowed what was a typical Big Ten slugfest in East Lansing, as neither team got to 60 points for the second straight Ohio State game. Both teams did well what they do well – MSU won the inside game, Thomas starred for OSU and both teams played standout defense – and in the end, the No. 18 Spartans (16-3) had enough to prevail while moving to 5-1 in Big Ten play.
"This is why you play, man. It's a classic game in different ways," MSU head coach Tom Izzo said after the game. "I just look at it that it was a war and we survived it, you know?"
Ohio State, meanwhile, fell to 13-4 overall and 3-2 in Big Ten play, with all of the losses to ranked opponents.
"You can't start the game the way we started it," Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. "We had some malfunctions. At the end of the first half, we had nine turnovers and they had seven steals. We weren't as sharp as we needed to be. I give our guys credit, they fought back in it and made it a basketball game."
It looked numerous times like Michigan State would pull away, as the Spartans opened an early 10-0 lead and then pulled out to a 46-39 advantage in the second half only to see the Buckeyes charge back behind Thomas and Scott each time.
Thomas finished 10 of 20 from the floor and made 6 of 11 threes on the way to his second-highest scoring night of the season.
"Obviously you'd like to have everybody in double figures and all that, but he was smooth, he was efficient tonight, and it was just a tremendous effort by him," Matta said.
The Buckeyes needed that kind of outing from Thomas to have a chance; the next highest scorer was Lenzelle Smith Jr. with six points, and Buckeyes not named Thomas made just 9 of 27 shots. But Scott helped run the offense smoothly, picking up five points and five assists in 21 minutes, while Aaron Craft finished with five points, six assists and five steals.
Appling led MSU with 15 points of 6-of-13 shooting, while Adreian Payne finished with 15 points while making 5 of 6 shots in his seventh start of the season. MSU centers Payne and Derrick Nix combined for 22 points and nine rebounds while OSU big men Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams had four points and seven boards.
But the thing everyone will remember was the last shot. After Appling made two free throws with 7.9 seconds left, Scott rushed the ball up the floor up the left side with Thomas trailing. As he got to the three-point line, Scott jumped and put up an awkward three that clanged off the side of the backboard; the ball left his hand with 3.9 seconds remaining.
"(We wanted) just a drive and kick," Matta said. "We had an action running to the other side and a drive and kick. That was not the play that cost us the game. There's no doubt about that."
Izzo said Michigan State doesn't ever foul in that situation up three but would have fouled Thomas after the OSU standout lit up the Spartans all night. Payne was guarding Thomas tight as Scott let the shot go.
"I wasn't letting him take a shot unless it was up in a mountain or something – and it still might go in," the 18th-year MSU head man said. "We would have fouled him. We thought they were gonna run a dribble handoff and give it to him. I was relieved but I think we earned the win."
The Spartans weren't at their best, but it was hard to argue that point. The Buckeyes led for less than five minutes and always seemed to be chasing Michigan State, though the Spartans' lead never reached double digits after OSU overturned a 13-2 deficit with a 15-0 run that coincided with Scott's entry into the game at the seven-minute mark.
From there, the two teams went back and forth for the rest of the half, with Michigan State taking a 30-26 lead into halftime. Thomas led all scorers with 10 points.
The second half started as a similar seesaw affair, as Thomas kicked off an 18-point second half with a three 10 seconds into the period. He added another about a minute later and Smith followed with a trey that gave OSU a 35-34 lead, its only advantage of the stanza.
From there, Michigan State put together a 12-4 run to take a seven-point lead, but it didn't take the Buckeyes long to get back in it as Williams made a foul shot, Thomas drove the baseline for a score and Scott made an old-fashioned three-point play in transition to bring the Buckeyes back within one.
The Buckeyes finally tied the score at 50 with 2:59 left on a three by Thomas – who else? – to set up a tense final minutes. Scott couldn't convert a chance to score in transition after a Craft steal as he lost control of the ball, and MSU came back with Payne converting a three-point play after Thomas went for the steal on the entry pass.
But Craft picked up thefts on back-to-back possessions – tying Jay Burson's all-time OSU record of 204 on the latter – to set up a Ravenel free throw and a pair of makes from the charity stripe by Thomas to tie the score again at 53.
From there, Appling took over, driving to the bucket past Craft and scoring to give MSU the lead for good at 55-53 with 41 seconds to play and then earning a breakaway dunk with 17 seconds left after Craft missed a wide-open three.
Craft pushed the ball and hit Smith for a three that made it 57-56, setting up Appling's makes and OSU's final possession.
"Well it was ... I don't know if it was pretty to watch or not," Izzo said. "It was a hell of a game."