Buckeyes Surge Past Spartans On Senior Day

Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr.'s Columbus careers came to a fitting end on Sunday when defense and grit paved the way for a 69-67 Ohio State victory over Michigan State. LaQuinton Ross scored 22 points for the Buckeyes, who could be looking at a first round bye in the Big Ten tournament thanks to their latest victory.

After an Adreian Payne three-pointer careened off the Michigan State rim with 28 seconds remaining on the clock, Aaron Craft dove to the floor, securing the rebound, possession and ultimately a 69-67 win for Ohio State (23-8, 10-8).

It couldn't have been a more fitting end to Craft's career in Columbus.

"At that moment, that's what I had to do for our team," Craft said.

Craft's senior day at OSU was spent like many others he's enjoyed with the Buckeyes -- full of grit, defense and a victory. The senior guard scored 12 points, dished out seven assists and recorded four steals in his Schottenstein Center finale, which was witnessed by a sellout crowd of 18,809 fans.

"You look at all the memories that they have in the building over the course of four years," Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said of Craft and fellow senior Lenzelle Smith Jr.. "To end it this way, it's just a great feeling for a coach."

Fittingly, it was defense that played the most prominent role in the Value City Arena finale for Smith and Craft, who is now the Big Ten's all-time steals leader with 328 to his credit. The Buckeyes held the Spartans scoreless for the game's final 4:30 with No. 22 Michigan State (23-8, 12-6) missing all four of its final field goal attempts.

"We defended down the stretch about as well as we could defend and we had to," Matta said. "We were saying -- really the last eight minutes -- it's on now. I thought our activity was great."

The Spartans had led by as many as seven points on Sunday as a Gary Harris jumper gave MSU a 53-46 advantage with 12:47 remaining in the game. The Buckeyes cut the Spartans' lead to one with a 6-0 run that was capped by a pair of Shannon Scott free throws, before a Denzel Valentine three and pair of Harris free throws stretched Michigan State's lead back to six.

It didn't take long for Ohio State to fight back, as a 6-0 run that lasted less than the course of a minute tied the game with 8:33 left on the clock. A LaQuinton Ross jumper was followed by four consecutive points from forward Sam Thompson, whose three-pointer from the corner tied the game at 58.

The Spartans would break the tie on a Payne three-pointer and a dunk from the Dayton, Ohio native pushed MSU's lead to five. Scott would tie things up on his own with a three and a layup, before Branden Dawson and Ross traded jumpers to even the score at 67 with 3:48 left on the clock.

A scoreless stretch of more than three minutes ensued as it was a free throw from Ohio State center Amir Williams that gave the Buckeyes the final lead of the game with 37 ticks left on the clock. The ensuing possession saw Payne's three-pointer contested by Thompson, before a Craft free throw nudged OSU's advantage to two.

"That was a play that we went over today in shootaround," Thompson said of Payne's ill-fated three. "That was a play that we saw them run against Wisconsin for a big shot. We saw them run it in the first play against us. A little pin play for Payne. I wanted to get out there and contest it."

Ohio State had opportunities to extend its final lead, but the Buckeyes went 2-for-8 from the free throw line in the game's final 1:28.

"We gotta make more free throws," Craft lamented. "Moving forward, that's going to cost us a game. It's great that we're getting there that much, but when we get there, we need to find a way to convert more."

Payne paced the Spartans with 23 points and eight rebounds, but was nearly matched by Ross, who scored 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting. Smith scored nine points and pulled down eight boards following his pregame senior day celebration in a victory that could lead to the Buckeyes earning the No. 4 seed in the Big Ten tournament, should Wisconsin beat Nebraska on Sunday.

"It means a lot. Definitely not just ending my career, but to play the Michigan State Spartans and beat them, I think it says a lot about our team," Smith said. "At this time in the year is when teams are playing what is supposed to be their best basketball.

The first half saw the two traditional Big Ten powers fight to a 17-17 tie in the game's opening seven minutes before the Buckeyes took a four-point lead on a Trey McDonald layup and Ross jumper. OSU would maintain an advantage until there was 7:13 left in the first half, when a Travis Trice four-point play gave MSU a 26-24 lead.

The Buckeyes would tie the game at 31 on a Ross free throw and Craft broke the tie with a layup with 3:45 remaining in the half. An MSU 5-0 run that was fueled by a three and a dunk from Payne was negated by a three-point play by McDonald, but a Keith Appling layup with eight seconds left on the clock sent the Spartans to the locker room with a 38-36 advantage.

The gritty nature of the first half only carried into the second, where it was Craft --who has been a thorn in the side of Michigan State throughout his storied career -- and the Buckeyes who would have the last laugh.

With its win over the Spartans, Ohio State now enters March Madness with some much-needed momentum on its side. The Buckeyes have endured a four-game losing streak this season and entered Sunday's contest on a two-game skid, but now find themselves in a positive place heading into postseason play.

"I never doubted this team. I don't think the players on this team doubted themselves," Ross said. "We just showed what type of team we are and what type of team people need to look forward to in this tournament."

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