In a sea of white, everything was coming up scarlet-colored roses for the Buckeyes (18-3, 6-1) in the first half. Ohio State took a commanding 43-23 lead into the halftime locker room. But a herculean effort by Spartan guard Drew Neitzel - 24 second-half points, gave Michigan State a chance to win the game on a 3-point attempt by Maurice Joseph with seconds left before the final buzzer sounded.
"We've got to go back and see what we did well," said OSU head coach Thad Matta on the Ohio State Radio Network after the game, "and also see what we can improve on."
If Charles Dickens had entitled his book a tale of two games, this would have been an epic novel.
The Buckeyes shot 61 percent in the first half and 24 percent in the second half. Michigan State shot 30 percent in the first half and 65.5 percent in the second. As the large lead evaporated on Neitzel's 8-of-13 shooting, the tension mounted among the anxious Ohio State fans hoping to hold-off the Spartan charge.
Neitzel finished the game with 29 points. Greg Oden, who scored 11 first-half points, was held without a field goal in the second half. The 7-1 freshman finished with 19 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked three shots. He also finished the game 11-of-14 from the free throw line.
In addition to Ohio State's shooting woes over the last 20 minutes, the Buckeyes also turned the ball over eight times. Junior Jamar Butler added 12 points for Ohio State while freshman Daequan Cook scored 11, but sat most of the last four minutes when the game was tight.
Michigan State freshman Raymar Morgan, a 6-7 forward from Canton McKinley, made his Schottenstein Center homecoming with 14 points for the Spartans. The floor had been kind to Morgan previously as his high school team won back-to-back Division I State Championships in the Value City Arena.
What Ohio State Did Wrong And Michigan State Did Right
* Neitzel, the Spartans' leading scorer as a 6-1 junior guard, took control of the game for Michigan State. To MSU head coach Tom Izzo's credit, the Spartans continued feeding Neitzel's flow by constantly setting a steady diet of ball screens and staggered screens to free him up as a shooter out on the top of the key. Butler was having a hard time keeping up with Neitzel, who did about as well away from the ball as any shooter could do. Freshman point guard Mike Conley was guarding Travis Walton for much of the second half as he was plagued with foul trouble. Senior Ron Lewis also tried his hand for the Buckeyes but lost track of Neitzel on consecutive ball screens. It was OSU freshman David Lighty that bailed the Buckeyes out on the game's final possession with a terrific defensive stand on Neitzel.
* Although Ohio State's lack of touches for their prized center in the second half normally would signal better defense employed by the Spartans, Michigan State did not do anything radically different than the first half where Ohio State scored 43 points on a series of easy entry passes. Michigan State did tighten their perimeter pressure, taking away some clear passing lanes, but the Spartans continued with man defense against Oden on the block - Ohio State simply did not look to make the pass inside often enough. While the Buckeyes did venture away from their game plan over the last 10-12 minutes, Michigan State did keep Oden from turning towards the rim all night long.
* In the second half, seniors Lewis and Ivan Harris were disruptive to Ohio State's flow. Harris had one series where he got clumsy with the ball early in the second half trying to toy with his defender and create a shot against his limitations and lost the ball. Michigan State picked it up, leading to an easy fastbreak where Harris failed to cut off penetration and fouled Morgan as he made a shot. Lewis had two 3-pointers blocked in the second half because of shots from the top of the key off ball screens that were forced.
* Freshman Daequan Cook found out for the second consecutive game that if you want to be on the floor in crunch time, it's imperative you make good decisions with the basketball and also play hard on the defensive end. Cook played 20 minutes against the Spartans and was out for most of the last 4-5 minutes, especially on critical defensive possessions.
* At one point in the first half, Morgan completed a strong finish down inside the paint and turned as he was heading down the floor and gave Matta a lengthy stare. The look said it all from the poised freshman as to say, "you blew it." His play backed up the sentiment Saturday night, as Morgan hurt Ohio State with his strong body and great feel for the game.
* Michigan State did a nice job cutting off the basket when Conley attempted to penetrate. However, it became a moot point over the course of the last 10 minutes as Conley's foul trouble precluded him from being aggressive with the ball.
What Ohio State Did Right And Michigan State Did Wrong
* Surprisingly, Michigan State did not double-down on Oden all evening long, unless he turned inside. The Spartans made the decision to give Oden the baseline hook and turn-around shot all evening provided they took away the drop-step. That said, Ohio State was having great success against Michigan State's rotation of four guys against Oden when the ball entered the post from the baseline. In the second half, Oden rarely got set up as much of the action was on the weakside and he was doing more screening and standing in the high-post than actually posting-up underneath.
* Ohio State took advantage of Lewis' size in the first half by posting him up against Neitzel on several occasions. In the second half, however, Michigan State elected to take Neitzel off Lewis and instead play him with bigger forwards.
* An unsung effort went largely unnoticed Saturday night by 6-8 Matt Terwilliger. Terwilliger played a precious four minutes but his short stint giving a first-half breather for Oden produced multiple hustle plays from him, including diving for one loose ball and a terrific block-out of Marquise Gray. Terwilliger's time in the game resulted in a 13-4 run by Ohio State, although no one will claim he was the sole reason for the spurt.
* Lost in the feeling of a loss following the seismic scare is that the Buckeyes played one of their finest halves of basketball under Matta during that 43-23 showing over the first 20 minutes. Ohio State shadowed Neitzel and Oden's presence greatly limited Michigan State's post play. Of course, by the same token, Michigan State (namely Neitzel) played one of the finer halves of basketball possible in the second 20 minutes, and it was not one of Matta's finer moments either.
* A small but encouraging sign from the first half was the comfort level of forward Othello Hunter on the perimeter. He was playing mostly behind the arc setting screens and holding the ball in the corner, but Hunter played admirably - canning one baseline jumper and attempting an open 3-pointer. Hunter's confidence offensively could help Ohio State in March.
The game had much good, bad and and plenty bizarre on both sides. In one humor-filled moment in the first half, one particular referee hesitated following a traveling violation by a Michigan State player. Allowing a fan sitting courtside to signal travel, the official looked him straight in the eye and smiled as he signaled the violation.
In the second half, Oden took the ball on the same portion of the floor and shuffled his pivot foot. The referee hesitated and stared down the same fan, not forgetting to smile as he called yet another travel - this one going against the Buckeyes.
It was good to know the official was in high spirits, because neither Matta nor Izzo appeared to be enjoying it quite as much. Sure, both sported sarcastic smiles all game long, but when push came to shove (and the game provided plenty of that), both coaches probably felt it was the typical Big Ten officiated game.
The good news for Ohio State is that they get to play Michigan State again, and it's likely Neitzel will go off in the zone he found Saturday night. The bad news for Ohio State is that they have to face Michigan State (and Neitzel) again - and soon. In fact, the two teams will see one another in another seven days at the Breslin Center in East Lansing. If Ohio State finds any combination of their first half production on the road in that game, it may escape for the second consecutive season with a victory.
A showing like the one in the second half Saturday night will send Ohio State back home with a result pretty simple to guess.
The game was an entertaining one, to say the least. The "white-out" was incredibly successful as I estimate nearly 90 percent of the building was dressed in white. That atmosphere was one that reeked of big-time college basketball. It was complimentary timing for Dan Schulman, Dick Vitale as well as Rece Davis, Hubert Davis, Digger Phelps and Jay Bilas - the cast of ESPN's College Gameday.
Take a snapshot though, of these two coaches: Matta and Izzo, against one another. It's safe to say the next few years may provide many more high-stakes meetings between the two programs.