- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Quick thoughts following Ohio State's second-half surge on the way to a critical Big Ten victory over Michigan State on Sunday afternoon at Value City Arena.
Overview: Flawed as it may be and as painful as it can look for Ohio State at times, it proved it can still handle its business against one of the best teams in the country.
The Buckeyes continued to take questionable shots, were sometimes overmatched in the post and suffered through occasional lapses on both ends of the floor.
But when they put everything together, even if just for a half, they’re capable of big runs on offense, stretches of dominant defense and big wins like the 68-60 decision it picked up against No. 4 Michigan State.
The Buckeyes had to deal with a slow start from the Big Ten’s leading scorer as Deshaun Thomas struggled to find his rhythm and chipped in just two points in the first half. They also had to overcome a physical disadvantage in the post, with Adreian Payne making life difficult with 10 first-half rebounds and the Spartans scoring often and easily in the paint.
But the issues that have popped up throughout the season and hampered them in the first half started disappearing down the stretch for the Buckeyes. Aaron Craft helped shoulder some of the scoring load until Thomas got rolling. As the Ohio State defense on the perimeter got tighter, the Spartans found it more difficult to assert themselves inside.
And after looking like they might slide out of the Big Ten race for good, the Buckeyes climbed right back into the picture with one of their biggest victories of the year.
Turning point: Lenzelle Smith couldn’t get settled into his sweet spot for more than a half. But once he finally got a look from the place he shot jumpers during pregame while his teammates were still in the locker room, the junior guard buried it and energized a home crowd that had been quiet for much of the afternoon.
The 3-pointer from the right corner with 13:55 left in the game also put the Buckeyes back on top. It helped erase a deficit that had been as high as nine points in the second half and ignited a 15-3 run that knocked the Spartans on their heels and handed them a second consecutive Big Ten loss.
Key player: The focus will always be on his defense, but when the team needed a lift on offense Craft reminded everybody that he can be a nuisance there as well.
The Spartans had a tough time keeping the junior guard in front and out of the lane, and Craft routinely exploited them with one of his most aggressive offensive performances of the season. At times this year Craft has been able to get to the rim but was unable to finish. That wasn’t an issue against Michigan State as he routinely capitalized from close range on the way to a game-high 21 points.
Key stat: The Spartans gave Craft two extra chances to set a new career high, and he took advantage with a pair of free throws with less than a second left and the outcome decided. The point guard had only scored 20 points in a game previously against Albany, which certainly doesn't have the reputation the Spartans brought with them to Value City Arena. Craft's ability to add balance to the offense was critical and tipped the scales for the Buckeyes in a game where Thomas didn't have his best stuff.
Miscellaneous: Thomas became the 25th player in Ohio State history to score 1,000 points and pull down 500 rebounds, joining the list with his third board midway through the first half on Sunday. ... The Buckeyes have won 10 conference games for the past eight seasons, extending the longest streak the program has ever put together. ... The Spartans came into the game with a 4-3 record against teams currently ranked in the Top 25. ... The previous three meetings between the programs had all been decided by four points or fewer. ... Izzo dropped to 21-12 against the Buckeyes.
Next up: Halfway though a brutal gauntlet of games in the Big Ten, the Spartans are in a hole after dropping a home date to Indiana earlier in the week. Michigan State has some time to recover, but things don’t get any easier when they return to the court on Sunday on the road at rival Michigan, with Wisconsin closing out the four-game stretch against ranked opponents on March 7.
The sprint to the end of the regular season doesn’t look nearly as difficult overall for the Buckeyes, despite a challenging trip to Indiana looming on March 5. Ohio State sandwiches that game with a trip to Northwestern on Thursday and a home date with Illinois before the Big Ten tournament starts.