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COLUMBUS — Ohio State guard Aaron Craft introduced himself as an offensive force Sunday.
And the 18th-ranked Buckeyes? They reintroduced themselves to the nation in a 68-60 upset of No. 4 Michigan State.
Widely written off after a humiliating no-show at Wisconsin last weekend, OSU (20-7, 10-5 Big Ten) came back from a nine-point second-half deficit to give a sold-out Value City Arena crowd renewed hope its best basketball is yet to come.
Craft scored 17 of his career-high 21 points in the second half, surprising the Spartans (22-6, 11-4) with one knifing drive after another as OSU took control with a 26-7 run.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said he had never seen the Findlay native so aggressive — and neither had OSU. Known more for his unyielding defense and skyscraping grade-point average — 3.92 — Craft has at times struggled adjusting to an increased offensive role this season. He did not have 21 points in his last three games combined and began this nationally televised brush between enduring Big Ten titans averaging 9.2 points on 39 percent shooting.
But Sunday, the junior looked every bit the maestro he was at Liberty-Benton. With star forward Deshaun Thomas laboring through an off game, Craft assumed the burden, time and again using screens near the top of the key to dust his defender.
His biggest came with 2 minutes, 21 seconds remaining as a 10-point OSU lead had fallen to two after a turnover by Craft led to a three-point play by Spartans guard Gary Harris. Craft answered with a driving score on the next possession.
“Give Aaron Craft credit. The second half, he tore us part,” Izzo said. “He beat us every way he could beat us. ... We did not cover those ball screens very well, and it falls on my shoulders.”
Of Craft’s relentlessness off those picks, Izzo added: “I couldn’t plan for something I’d never seen.”
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And perhaps the same could be said for Ohio State’s second half as a whole — an effort that cast their season in a new light.
A week ago, the Buckeyes’ 22-point loss at Wisconsin dropped them to 1-7 against ranked teams. Now, after a 71-45 rout of Minnesota on Wednesday and a signature win Sunday, they are perhaps changing course at just the right time.
OSU closed within a half-game of third-place Michigan (23-4, 10-4) and Wisconsin (19-8, 10-4) in the Big Ten standings. The top four teams earn a first-round bye at the conference tournament.
“This was a big week for us, especially coming off that game last week,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “I hope it propels us in terms of guys trusting the system we’re in and just the belief in themselves. We’re getting down to the nitty gritty of college basketball here.”
The Buckeyes’ day began bleakly. Not that it was a concern, but you could have heard an OSU shot swish through the net in a first half that hijacked the arena of life. The Buckeyes were 1 of 11 from beyond the arc while Thomas missed all but one of his eight shot attempts, leading to a deficit that reached nine points early in the second half.
Only the crowd-delighting K9 Crew Frisbee Dog halftime show seemed capable of saving the day.
But a different Ohio State team emerged for the second half. Its shooting hand warmed — OSU hit 4 of 7 3-pointers — while the lanes opened for Craft. The Buckeyes shot 57 percent from the field (12 of 21) in the second half.
Not surprisingly, Craft — who also had six assists, held MSU’s Keith Appling to three points, and dove to force a jump-ball that gave OSU possession with 1:34 remaining — downplayed his effort.
“The biggest thing we get from this is we got a big win over a good team,” he said. “I don’t care who’s scoring. This is big for this basketball team, the way we picked ourselves up from last week.”
With a grin, Thomas was having none of it.
“I’m excited for him,” said Thomas, who was held to 14 points on 4-of-16 shooting,. “People criticize Craft’s offense, but I have faith in his offense and I believe in him. It’s good for him to come out and score and attack those guards. A lot of people talk about how there’s only one person who can score. A lot of people can score in my eyes.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.