RUSTY MILLER,AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Tom Izzo isn’t happy with where his Michigan State Spartans are headed.
After being outscored by 14 points in the second half of Sunday’s disappointing 68-60 loss at No. 18 Ohio State, the coach of the fourth-ranked Spartans took a hard look at his team as it heads into its final three regular-season games and the postseason.
“I haven’t seen the same grit since after that Michigan game,” he said of a 75-52 rout three games ago over the then-No. 4 Wolverines at home on Feb. 12. “We’re not coming in not playing hard. We played hard against Indiana, they just beat us. I just thought today you give up that many layups — 57 percent shooting in the second half — they should run me out of town.”
That isn’t going to happen, not to a longtime coach with a 434-175 record, one national championship, six Final Fours and seven Big Ten titles.
But it’s a mark of how dissatisfied he is with his team’s play over the last three games that he continually reflected on what was plaguing the Spartans.
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.
“Yeah, it’s difficult. We put ourselves in a corner,” Payne said of the situation the Spartans find themselves in in the Big Ten. “Now we have to win games. We have to win all of our games. It’s tough, but it’s something we’ve got to overcome.”
There was plenty of blame to go around.
“It was a joint screw-up,” Izzo added.
The Spartans have a week off until playing at archrival Michigan, then complete a stretch of four games against ranked opponents with a home game on March 7 against Wisconsin.
“The problem is when you’re in a league where you play three, four or five ranked teams in a row, it takes its toll,” Izzo said. “We did it a little early, and we’re doing it again now. It all depends on how the schedule falls. You’ve got to survive.”
Aaron Craft, who had scored just 17 points in his last three games, shredded the Spartans’ defense on a succession of slashing drives right through the heart of the lane to score a career-high 21 points for the Buckeyes (20-7, 10-5).
The irony is that Michigan State did a terrific job on Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeye who came in leading the Big Ten in scoring at 20.1 points a game. He managed to make just 4 of 16 shots from the field, finishing with 14 points.
But Thomas did have a big 3-pointer that got Ohio State going after the Spartans built a 36-27 lead on Payne’s baseline jumper 90 seconds into the second half.
Craft missed a shot that was tipped out to Thomas on the right side and he drained the long-range shot. It started a 24-5 run that flipped the game around.
“It was nine and they got the missed shot and Deshaun got the tip-out 3,” Harris said. “That was the turning point of the game.”
Yet the Spartans, who fell behind by as many as 10 points, weren’t done yet.
Two foul shots apiece by Nix, Payne and Harris pulled them to 61-59, but Craft sped by Keith Appling for a lunging layup with 2:22 left.
After a free throw by Appling, Evan Ravenel, the only senior on Ohio State’s roster, was fouled and he hit both shots to push the lead to 65-60 with 1:13 remaining.
Ravenel then blocked an Appling shot to end any possibility of a comeback.
Izzo was asked if this was a good time to have a week between games.
“It’s a good time for a week off — maybe two, three weeks,” he said, his voice trailing off.
This could be a strenuous week for the Spartans, to say the least. The way Izzo talked, he might just be ready to push his players hard to impress upon them the importance of what lies ahead.
“That whole thing is going to fall on me,” he said. “I’ve got to do a better job this week in practice. I am disappointed we haven’t shown the grit we showed in the last two games — which normally happens when you get fat and sassy. I think we’ve gotten a little bit of that.”
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