Amir Williams, right, and Deshaun Thomas, left, block a shot by MSU’s Gary Harris in the Buckeyes’ Big Ten semifinal win.
CHICAGO — Aaron Craft’s first downpour of offense this season came so out of nowhere that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo questioned how his staff could be expected to prepare for something he had never seen.
This time, there was no excuse.
The Ohio State guard was just that good.
Craft and the No. 10 Buckeyes will play for the Big Ten tournament title today after putting a new spin on an old script to brush off eighth-ranked MSU 61-58 on Saturday at the United Center.
The junior guard scored a game-high 20 points — including 18 in the second half — and added nine assists as OSU (25-7) turned a black-and-blue Big Ten grinder into a late eight-point advantage, then desperately held on to win its seventh straight game.
The Buckeyes will vie for their third league championship in four years against Wisconsin, which upset Indiana in the earlier eeeeeeeeesemifinal.
“Once you get in a groove like I was,” Craft said, “and it seems like anything you’re throwing up is going in, you’ve got to love it.”
The Spartans were prepared to stop Craft, who blistered them for a career-high 21 points in an OSU win last month. That day in Columbus, the Findlay native used his teammates’ on-ball screens at the top of the key to set up one knifing drive after another.
Saturday, though, Craft was a different player. And the Buckeyes were a different team — in no small part because of their point guard’s evolving aggressiveness on offense.
Craft showed the Spartans the full range of his game, using mid-range jumpers and a 3-pointer that shoved OSU ahead for good at 48-45 to help set up his offense. In all, the player known more for his in-your-face defense made 9 of 13 shots, scoring at least 14 points for the fourth time in six games.
“We did not do a very good job on Craft, and he beat us in a different way,” Izzo said. “The first time, he beat us getting to the hole. This time, he beat us with his jump shot.”
In fairness, Craft had his share of drives, too, including the biggest of the game in the dying minutes. After MSU forward Derrick Nix’s throwback three-point play capped a 7-0 run that narrowed OSU’s advantage to 57-56, Craft answered with a drive that set off a wild final sequence that smiled upon the Buckeyes.
Nix was called for a flagrant foul, and after Craft made one of two free throws with 1 minute, 27 second left, Deshaun Thomas rebounded a missed 3 by Shannon Scott on the next possession. Thomas then hit a leaner just wide of the foul line to put OSU ahead 60-56 with 22 seconds left.
Still, it marked the rare game that Thomas, who added 16 points on 6-of-19 shooting, ceded the offensive spotlight. It was Craft, who averages 9.6 points and twice was held scoreless earlier this season, who picked up the Big Ten’s leading scorer.
“You look at what he’s accomplished thus far in his career, the wins, the big plays he’s made,” Matta said. “In coaching you, you don’t get to coach a lot of guys like him just from A to Z and everything he stands for. He makes us go on both ends of the floor.
“A lot of people panicked when he wasn’t scoring in the middle of the season, and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t have a problem with it. It will come.’ He loves these types of games, there’s no question about it. He was big for us.”