Much like the last time Ohio State squared off against Michigan State, the Buckeyes found themselves facing what looked to be an insurmountable deficit in the first half. But playing on senior day at Value City Arena, OSU turned 21 MSU turnovers into 28 points and ran away with a 63-54 victory.
The win was not only OSU's second consecutive victory against a ranked opponent, but it gave the Buckeyes further hope of advancing to the NCAA Tournament.
"I'm happy today," senior guard Jamar Butler said. "We knew coming into this game that we needed this win. We stepped up, played good and got the win."
The last time OSU and MSU faced off, the Spartans emerged with a 66-60 victory in East Lansing on Jan. 15. In that game, the Buckeyes fell behind by 21 points but fought back late in the game.
This time, after trailing by 10 points with 12:02 left, the Buckeyes closed the game on a 28-9 run to send seniors Jamar Butler, Othello Hunter and Matt Terwilliger out with a victory on what figures to be the last home game of their careers.
The game sets up a rematch of the two teams who have now split the regular-season series. No. 5 seed OSU will face No. 4 seed MSU on the second day of the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis on Friday.
But for the second consecutive game, the Buckeyes (19-12, 10-8 Big Ten) made plays down the stretch against a nationally ranked conference foe that had defeated them earlier during the season. OSU forced the Spartans (24-7, 12-6) into three second-half shot-clock violations.
The second-half rally started when OSU head coach Thad Matta gave his charges a speech during a timeout with 11:10 remaining in the contest.
"It was basically, ‘Fellas we've got to go. We've got to make our run now. We're not going to score a 10-point play here. Let's keep chipping way at it,' " he said.
The Buckeyes listened and went on a 7-0 run to close the gap to three points with 10:06 remaining, but play was momentarily stopped when the shot clocks above both baskets lost power and went out. Officials brought out new shot clocks and placed them on both baselines, forcing players to use them for the rest of the game.
But the stop in play only slowed the inevitable for the Spartans. After twice pulling to within one point, OSU took its first lead of the game with 4:46 remaining when Butler connected on two free throws, making it 53-52 Buckeyes.
The Spartans would pull to within a point one possession later on a pair of free throws by guard Kalin Lucas, but OSU ended the game on an 8-0 run to close the deal.
"I'm very disappointed in the way we performed the last 10 minutes," MSU head coach Tom Izzo said. "It's a shame when we played so well for 25, 30 minutes. I don't know what I'm more disappointed in, myself, the team (or) the officiating."
MSU was whistled for 18 personal fouls compared to eight for OSU. The Buckeyes were 14 of 20 from the charity stripe, while the Spartans were just 5 of 6 in a game that was decidedly choppy in the second half as officials called the game close.
But as both coaches pointed out, it was the improved Buckeye defense in the second half that ultimately made the difference.
"I thought we the one thing we had talked about was having more activity and more awareness," Matta said. "Guys were pointing, talking, moving and flowing better. We did a better job of challenging shots."
The Buckeyes were led by Butler, who had 20 points on 5 of 11 shooting while going 8 for 8 from the line. Hunter added 13 – including a one-handed dunk of a Kosta Koufos miss with 56 seconds left that added an emphatic exclamation mark on the game – while sophomore David Lighty had 12 and Koufos chipped in 11 from the bench.
Terwilliger earned the first start of his collegiate career in place of Koufos and finished with four points, two rebounds and one block in 22 minutes of action.
"It was alright," he said of starting. "That doesn't make a big difference to me. I appreciate it on senior night, but it wasn't a big deal."
Despite a stretch of more than 4 ½ minutes that saw the Buckeyes go scoreless from the field, they still headed into the locker room trailing by eight. A trey by Butler pulled OSU to within five points at 24-19 with 7:32 remaining in the first half, but the home team would not score again until Terwilliger threw down a two-handed dunk with 3:03 remaining to make it 29-21 Spartans.
During the stretch, OSU missed three shots and committed two turnovers. MSU was unable to further open its lead as it committed four turnovers during the same timeframe.
After Hunter scored on a put-back with 27 seconds remaining in the half to make it a six-point MSU lead, the Spartans called a timeout with 12 seconds remaining to try and ensure a quality shot. They got what they wanted when an inbounds pass from the sideline found its way to guard Kalin Lucas, who knifed to the basket from the top of the circle and scored on a layup with less than two seconds remaining to set the halftime score at 31-23.
MSU senior guard Drew Neitzel, well-known for his heroics against the Buckeyes, canned his first two three-pointers in the first minute and a half of play and went scoreless for the remainder of the game. The Spartans were led by sophomore forward Raymar Morgan, who had 19 points on 9 of 13 shooting but was limited to 28 minutes due to foul trouble.
Now, both teams put their focus into preparing for the rubber match in the series.
"They beat us the first time, we beat them this time," Butler said. "This is a grudge match. We know what they're going to do and they know what we're going to do. It comes down to mental toughness."