By RUSTY MILLER/AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Aaron Craft 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 No. 18 Ohio State to a 68-60 victory over fourth-ranked Michigan State.
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.
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.
Freshman Gary Harris had 14 points and Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix each had 12 for the Spartans (22-6, 11-4), who have dropped two in a row after winning 11 of 12.
The victory improved Ohio State to 2-7 against ranked teams this season – both wins against Michigan’s Big Ten teams at Value City Arena. The Buckeyes are 18-0 against teams not in the Associated Press Top 25.
Michigan State, which lost to Indiana 72-68 on Tuesday night, still has games at No. 7 Michigan on Sunday and No. 19 Wisconsin at home on March 9 in a string of four in a row against ranked opponents. They close out the regular season on March 10 at home against Northwestern.
The Buckeyes improved to 7-3 against top-five teams in the 15 years of Value City Arena.
Michigan State led 36-27 after a Payne jumper from the left baseline early in the second half, all but quieting the crowd.
But the Buckeyes didn’t back down, scoring 18 of the next 23 points to forge a five-point lead.
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.
After a Nix free throw temporarily ended the spell, Ohio State continued its onslaught.
LaQuinton Ross poured in a 3 from in front of the Buckeyes bench off an assist pass from Craft. Ravenel added a free throw before Craft once again sped through the heart of Michigan State’s defense for a layup in traffic to push the lead to 51-41 with under 9 minutes left.
Craft has not provided much offense all year for an Ohio State team that has been begging for a scorer to back up Thomas. Against a Michigan State team which prides itself on its defense, and with quality defenders on the perimeter, he seemed to always be racing to the rack with no one in front of him.
He had not hit double figures in the last three games – while totaling 17 points. He was held under 10 points in half of his Big Ten games coming in.
The Spartans scrambled back with a 5-0 run but Thomas was fouled on a 3-point try by Payne and hit all three free throws to make it 54-46.
Craft drove and hit two more free throws with just under 5 minutes left before Denzel Valentine scored on a short half-hook. But Thomas came right back by muscling in a shot while being fouled and then completing the three-point play to make it 61-52 with 3:54 left.
Two fouls shots apiece by Nix, Payne and Harris pulled the Spartans to 61-59, but Craft sped by Keith Appling for a lunging layup with 2:22 left.
After a free throw by Appling, the Buckeyes missed a shot, were awarded the ball in a scrum via alternate possession and Ravenel, the only senior on the team, rebounded and was fouled. He hit both shots to push the lead to 65-60 with 1:13 left.
Seconds later, Appling was squeezed on a drive and flipped the ball back and out of bounds. But the Buckeyes turned it right back over when they were unable to inbound within 5 seconds.
The teams traded possessions before the Spartans got the ball to Appling on a drive, but Ravenel came across and blocked it with 25 seconds left.
The Spartans wouldn’t score again.
The Spartans stepped on the gas over the final 75 seconds in a 6-0 run for a 31-25 lead at the half.
There were six ties and five lead changes before the Spartans broke a tie at 25 when Denzel Valentine found burly Matt Costello inside for a basket. Harris then stole the ball , leading to two free throws by Dawson. The Buckeyes then turned it over again when Williams bobbled a pass and Dawson dunked off an alley-oop fastbreak pass from Harris.
Payne, continuing to be a pain to his home-state team, had 10 rebounds in the opening half. That was just three fewer than the entire Ohio State team. The Spartans totaled 21 rebounds at the break.
Another area where Michigan State looked sharper was in passing the ball. They had seven assists to just three by the Buckeyes, with Harris matching the Ohio State total.
Thomas could not get untracked, hitting just one of his eight attempts from the field. The Big Ten’s leading scorer at 20 points a game, he had just two through 20 minutes.
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