An outcome assured, I was armed with thoughts of disappointment. The Buckeyes, relatively untested through 15 games, headed to East Lansing for their toughest game on the regular season slate, and they didn’t look ready for it. A season-high 17 turnovers in the game’s first 32 minutes, the team’s two leading scorers in LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith Jr. a combined for 4-for-18 for 12 points, a scoreless first half from the starting backcourt of Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott, a run of 11-2 to close the first half, and falling behind by 17 points in the second half were going to be the key barbs to hammer home.
And then, sheer lunacy unfolded. The Bucks erased that 17-point hole to force overtime and nearly pulled off the stunner in the Breslin Center. Sparty on the strength of key threes from Keith Appling and Adreian Payne regrouped to hold on 72-68 in overtime, but it was the comeback and the emergence of new ready-for-primetime players that has me most intrigued moving forward.
But first, let’s backtrack a bit to the first half. It was your run-of-the-mill ugly, physical, defensively-driven start that you would come to expect when two top five teams come together in East Lansing. Both teams were shooting under 40%, but the Spartans got up and down the court pretty well and the Buckeyes were struggling on the offensive end. Lenzelle Smith Jr. was ice cold, but he was running around and grabbing rebounds, driving inside, and watching his shots spin in and out of the rim. Besides that, it was very much the same old boring and problematic offense for the scarlet and gray, reversals around the arc without post feeds, cuts off-the-ball, or any meaningful dribble penetration. There were some instances when a pick-and-roll never even came to show some semblance of motion. Aaron Craft, who had yet to turn the ball over in his first two conference games, had three plays late in the first half where he threw the ball out of bounds in the corner on baseline drives. LaQuinton Ross didn’t touch the ball for the first seven minutes of the game and didn’t seem that much more interested after that. Amir Williams was playing Charmin soft, blowing a wide open dunk opportunity and allowing easy post feeds. The Bucks’ D as always kept them close, but a brief surge by Sparty to close the first half dug a 7-point hole that seemed enormous given the low scoring.
It got even worse in the second half. Williams continued to play like a non-factor as Payne met little resistance. It forced Thad Matta’s hand to a small lineup, and all that brought about was two awe-inspiring putback thumps from Payne as OSU was unable to prevent the senior’s rim-running. The momentum had runneth over for Michigan State, and their lead grew to an insurmountable 17 points with 8:06 to play on a Keith Appling lay-in. “We’re not good enough of a basketball team to waste possessions,” said Matta after the game. “Shockingly, we had shots to win the game,” he would add later. He’s absolutely right, because while the Buckeyes do go through prolonged periods without scoring, they usually do so via missed shots rather than turnovers. Live ball turnovers are the lock-down defense’s worst enemy, and Michigan State had a lot of their success against looks other than the OSU halfcourt defense.
With the two leading scorers on the bench, Matta tried a different lineup, running with junior Sam Thompson and freshman Marc Loving to go with Craft, Scott, and Williams. The result was more aggressive offense and the same tenacious defense. The duo would go on to score the team’s next 13 points with just one Branden Dawson layup to break up the run. Nine of those were Thompson’s as he attacked the hoop with authority and knocked down a jumper. Give Matta credit for sticking with the hot hands and riding that 5-man squad to a 20-3 run to finish regulation. In that eight minute stretch, Sparty would turn the basketball over nine times and score just 3 points with the Dawson layup the lone field goal. It was a choke job to be certain, and Tom Izzo seemed to think as much following the game rather than giving Ohio State credit.
Over the final two minutes of regulation, Aaron Craft was simply brilliant. For as much as he forced everything and looked off his game in the first half, he was that on point in crunch time. It began with an up-and-under layup with 2:02 to go for the old-fashioned three-point play to cut the deficit to just three points. After Shannon Scott drew an offensive foul on Keith Appling, Craft would miss a layup, get the ball back from Williams, misfire on a corner three, and then turn into a human projectile on the floor while diving for a loose ball and call timeout after MSU’s Gary Harris originally had it in his grasp. After the timeout, it was Craft’s heads up decision to execute the old bounce off the defender’s butt trick and lay it in to cut the Michigan State lead to just one. Payne added one free throw before the next OSU possession, which started with Craft driving to his right, spinning through the lane against Payne, and tossing it off the board. The ball seemed to be perfectly set to roll off the front of the rim for Amir, who thumped it to knot it at 58. Shannon Scott nearly became the hero as he deflected the final Sparty possession into the backcourt, racing to the other end as the clock ticked down. He missed the layup with two Spartans in close pursuit, and Thompson would’ve had enough time to slam it home for the win if not for Payne’s knockaway just as it bounced off the rim.
In the extra session, the Buckeyes ran their offense through both Thompson and Loving again. Thompson would get fouled on one corner three attempt, making two of the foul shots, and drill another as he stepped into the shot on the left wing with 1:13 remaining to tie the game at 66. Thompson’s impact was even greater, and it was a call back to the Thompson we saw in some key moments in the second half of the schedule last year. His 18 points led OSU on 7-of-10 shooting and added 8 rebounds plus two steals as he worked hard in the full court press alongside Craft and Scott. Loving made 3-of-4 from the line, then he missed a three, stole the ball back, and committed the offensive foul all within a few seconds. In each offensive set, Loving touched it and looked very comfortable in doing so for a guy who’s been the 7th or 8th man in the rotation, averaging 13 minutes per game against mostly easy opponents. Though it was one of the most hostile home venues in all of college basketball, Loving didn’t look afraid of the moment despite some freshman mistakes, including not coming to the ball on a pick and fade. While he shot just 2-of-8, Loving’s impact was greater than that with his 10 points and 5-of-6 from the foul line.
Michigan State connected on a trio of threes in overtime that carried them through, including one from Appling over an outstretched Scott with 34 seconds remaining to give them the lead for good. Appling led all scorers with 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists, while Payne added 18 points and 6 boards. Both would have moments where they labored through the game due to injury, but they persevered. Ohio State would get Loving a three-point opportunity, but he didn’t take his first look at the shot, allowing Appling to instead crowd him and force a prayer that clanged off the front of the rim as OSU neglected to take their remaining timeout. “Rise and fire confidently, young fella!” was all I could say after the play, holding nothing against the frosh. Eleven three pointers bailed the Spartans out, and it overruled a dominating rebounding effort from the Buckeyes by a 42-28 count, including 15 offensive boards.
I did not expect Ohio State to win this game. I really did not expect them to get blown out in this game. I most definitely did not foresee Ohio State nearly pulling off a second miraculous and improbable comeback to go with their win in Madison Square Garden against Notre Dame. Ohio State didn’t get to keep their undefeated record, but they did get punched right in the mouth, hit the canvas hard, and got up off of the deck to nearly win the bout. Ohio State still doesn’t know who their offensive closer is, but the closer by committee has two new entrants. If I was the skipper, I’d be giving Loving plenty more opportunities.
(Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)