Chicago — As soon as he heard the name, Keith Appling couldn’t hide a look of disgust as he began to shake his head.
It was just three weeks ago that the Buckeye guard torched the Spartans for a career-high 21 points, mostly on drives that left many puzzled about MSU’s defensive strategy.
But Saturday afternoon, Craft pulled out every shot in the book — floaters, layups, fadeaways, mid-range jumpers and three’s — on the way to 18 second half points, leaving Appling sitting at his locker in frustrated disbelief.
“Can’t do nothing about that,” Appling said. “Nine times out of 10 that’s not a shot he’s going to make, on a regular basis. But, like I said, you’ve got to give that guy credit. He carried his team for 40 minutes, made some plays when it counted and they were able to come out with the win.”
Unable to overcome second half offensive inefficiency, the No. 8 MSU men’s basketball team (25-8) fell to No. 10 Ohio State (25-7), 61-58, in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, behind 20 points and nine assists from Craft, along with 16 points and seven rebounds from forward Deshaun Thomas.
The Buckeyes will advance to face Wisconsin tomorrow afternoon for the Big Ten Tournament title.
The early moments were defined by outside shooting, as the Buckeyes traded threes with junior guard Keith Appling on consecutive possessions.
The Spartans then turned to their bigs, with back-to-back buckets down low from senior center Derrick Nix, followed by another 3-pointer, this time from Payne, extending MSU’s lead to six, 13-7, with 14:06 to go in the first half. It would be MSU’s largest lead of the game.
The trio paced the Spartans throughout, with Nix leading the charge, scoring 17 points with nine rebounds, while Appling poured in 16 points and Payne added 12 points and eight rebounds.
The rest of MSU’s team combined for 13 points on 5-for-20 shooting (25 percent).
“When you look at the stat sheet, we just got in each other’s way,” MSU head coach Tom Izzo said. “(It’s) just disappointing because I think we could have played well enough to win, but we did not play smart enough.”
An example of MSU’s breakdown in fundamentals came in a pair of defensive lapses that allowed the Buckeyes to claw back into the game early, first on an inbounds play where forward Evan Ravenel got an uncontested dunk and later when guard Aaron Craft blew by the Spartan defense for an easy layup to make it a one possession game.
The plays sparked a 12-2 Ohio State run, highlighted by a pair 3-pointers from forward LaQuniton Ross, to give Ohio State its first lead, 19-15, midway through the first half.
MSU answered with a quick 6-0 spurt to briefly regain the lead, before a three from Thomas pushed Ohio State back out in front.
“When we stay connected, both offensively and defensively, when we don’t panic when things don’t go well — I think we can play with anybody in the country,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said.
“As I told them, when our backs were against the wall, you’ve answered the call for a while here.”
Thomas’ bucket would begin a 9-2 run, giving the Buckeyes their largest lead of the half, 28-23, before MSU closed the half with six straight points, including four from Nix to take a 29-28 lead into the locker room.
But offensive fluidity didn’t carry over from the first half to the second for the Spartans, as MSU went from hitting 13-of-27 shots in the opening 20 minutes (48.1 percent) to just 7-of-23 (30.4 percent) in the second half.
As their outside shots struggled to fall, the Spartans began working their way to the charity stripe to stay in the game.
After failing to attempt a single free throw in the first half, MSU got to the line 11 times in the opening eight minutes of the second half, connecting on 10, to hang around after failing to connect on all but three of its first 18 shots (16.6 percent) to open the second half.
But the one person who had no problems getting shots to fall was Craft, knocking down 8-of-11 second half shots, after scoring only two points and attempting two shots in the first half.
Powered by Craft, Ohio State surged to its largest lead, 55-47, with 7:13 to go, a lead they would maintain for the next four minutes.
Needing a basket, a long rebound found its way to Appling, who sized up a critical three, his fourth of the night, to cut Ohio State’s lead to four, 57-53, with 3:24 remaining, prompting an immediate MSU timeout.
The Spartans then turned to their lone senior, and Nix came through, finishing a spinning layup while being fouled and converting the 3-point play to bring MSU within one, 57-56, with 1:54 to go.
But on the ensuing possession, Nix was called for a flagrant foul when Craft drove through the lane and was hit between the head and the shoulder, turning the tide in Ohio State’s favor.
Craft hit one of two free throws to extend the lead to two, and after MSU failed to secure the defensive rebound, the Buckeyes capitalized with a mid-range jumper from Thomas to give Ohio State a 60-56 lead with 18.6 seconds left, all but sealing the victory.
Izzo made sure to repeat after the game that both he and his players felt the officials made the correct call on the play, despite the area of contact being unintentional.
The only thing the Spartans’ head coach was more emphatic about was his excitement to finally play someone other than the Big Ten teams that know his team so well, punishing each other for the better part of three months.
“Some of these guys I’ve gone against now for 10 years,” Izzo said. “It’s hard when you’ve got good players and even teams and you know what each other’s gum is. It’s hard.
“I’m really looking forward to playing somebody else, and I think all the Big Ten teams are, and deservedly so. We’ve beaten the hell out of each other and … I think it’s going to help all of us in the end. I really believe the toughest team is the one that’s been through the most, the one that can sit there at a pregame or at a halftime and say, ‘we’ve done this. We’ve been there. We’ve played these guys.’ It’s going to benefit. (So), yeah, I’m looking forward to playing anybody. I’d play the Lakers tomorrow instead of some of the teams I’ve played recently.”