All year long Ohio State’s fans wondered whether Aaron Craft — one of the nation’s top defenders — would ever make major contributions at the other end of the court.
He picked the perfect time to finally break loose.
Craft continually slashed through the lane for a career-high 21 points on Sunday — more than he had scored in the last three games combined — to lead the 18th-ranked Buckeyes to a 68-60 victory over No. 4 Michigan State.
“Give Aaron Craft credit. In the second half, he tore us apart,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “It was Aaron Craft. He beat us every way you could beat us.”
The pesty, bothersome junior defensive specialist hit 7 of 12 shots — almost all of them on drives through a thicket of players in the paint.
The loss crippled the Spartans’ hopes of catching up with top-ranked Indiana, which now leads the Big Ten race by two full games with four remaining.
Freshman Gary Harris had 14 points, Derrick Nix 12 and Adreian Payne 12 points and 15 rebounds for the Spartans (22-6, 11-4), who have dropped two in a row after winning 11 of 12.
It also boosted Ohio State’s flagging postseason resume. The Buckeyes came in having won just a single game in eight starts against teams in the Associated Press Top 25 — but were 18-0 against unranked teams.
Counting a 56-53 win over No. 2-ranked Michigan on Jan. 13, it was the first time that Ohio State has ever beaten two top-5 teams at home in the same season.
No wonder the fans sang, “We don’t give a damn for the whole state of Michigan” in the final minutes.
The big win came a week after the Buckeyes looked listless in an embarrassing 71-49 loss at Wisconsin. They took the first step with a convincing 71-45 win over Minnesota before topping the Spartans.
“We beat two really, really good basketball teams,” coach Thad Matta said. “Minnesota at one point this year was in the top 10 and these guys were No. 4 in the country. This was a big week for us — home, away, wherever — especially coming off of that game last week.”
Deshaun Thomas added 12 of his 14 points in the second half for the Buckeyes (20-7, 10-5), who stand fifth in the conference. Evan Ravenel added 10 points and a crucial block in the final minute.
Michigan State led 36-27 after a Payne jumper from the left baseline early in the second half which all but quieted a crowd of 18,809.
But the Buckeyes didn’t back down, scoring 18 of the next 23 points to take the lead for good.
With Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Thomas hitting 3s and Amir Williams, a Detroit native, dunking inside and then completing the three-point play, the Buckeyes scored points in transition, played tenacious defense and kept up on the boards to take the lead, 45-40.