They may have to rename the Big Ten tournament the Thad Matta Invitational.
Matta, in his ninth season as the Ohio State head coach, has now led the Buckeyes to the championship game for the seventh time. His team made it there for the fifth consecutive year with a 61-58 win over No. 3 seed Michigan State in a semifinal game before 21,824 Saturday afternoon at Chicago’s United Center.
The Buckeyes (25-7) advance to face fourth-seeded Wisconsin in Sunday’s championship game. OSU’s semifinal match-up with Michigan State pitted two teams that could earn two seeds in the impending NCAA Tournament when those bids are announced on Sunday. It was also a rematch of last year’s Big Ten tournament title game, which MSU won 68-64.
“Like all Big Ten games, that was a high powered college basketball game,” Matta said. “I thought our guys did a good job of keeping their composure. It was a game of runs. They got up on us, we got up on them.
“Down the stretch I thought Aaron [Craft] and Shannon [Scott] did a good job of controlling the tempo, but once again, I think our defense, especially there in the second half, getting our hands on the balls, challenging shots, they made adjustments, we had to make adjustments on the fly. And I thought our guys did a good job of that. Great win for us.”
Point guard Aaron Craft had 18 of his game-high 20 points in the second half as the Buckeyes (25-7) held on late for the win.
“I told him it was time to take over,” Matta joked. “He made some great reads. He had a great feel and sense for what they were doing defensively. I give our other four credit. They spaced the floor and gave him an opportunity to make plays.
“I thought he was tremendous. Everybody is talking about his offensive game, but he also had four steals on defense. That was an outstanding performance by him.”
Craft, who hit 9 of 13 shots from the floor, also had a season-high nine assists and four steals.
“I was just trying to believe in myself,” Craft said. “I think we have a lot of plays that we can execute that either get me open shots or I can help create for somebody else, and tonight I found some openings and was able to knock down some shots and that definitely opened up other things for, whether it was Deshaun [Thomas] or guys like LaQuinton [Ross] that can knock down shots, as well.”
Thomas joked, “He looked like me out there scoring.”
“But It helps this team a lot. The way he can penetrate, make the defense collapse to him, he can kick it out to shooters. It's very important. And by him being aggressive in a score like that can really help. And it helps our team to the next game and the next game by his aggressiveness.”
Thomas added 16 points and seven rebounds for the Buckeyes. Thomas struggled with his shooting (6 of 19 and 2 of 11 on threes), but he hit a clutch jumper with 22.3 seconds left to give OSU a 60-56 lead. MSU’s Keith Appling then missed on a drive – deflected by Sam Thompson -- as the Buckeyes stood tall in the end.
LaQuinton Ross had nine points, while Thompson had eight for the Buckeyes.
Derrick Nix led MSU (25-8) with 17 points and nine rebounds. Appling had 16 points and Adreian Payne scored 12. OSU held MSU to 40 percent shooting (20 of 50).
“Well, we’re disappointed,” said MSU coach Tom Izzo. “You know, I think we had some chances, and yet they just played a little smarter than us down the stretch.”
Michigan State led 29-28 at halftime. There were three ties and six lead changes and neither team ever led by more than six points. OSU held a 28-23 lead with 4:24 left before missing its last 10 shots from the floor, opening the door for MSU. Nix had 10 points to lead MSU, while Thomas had 11 for OSU.
The teams traded threes to open the game with MSU’s Appling hitting two and Thomas and Thompson hitting them for MSU.
MSU led 13-7 after Adreian Payne splashed a three. The Buckeyes rallied with seven straight points to grab the lead. The run included an Evan Ravenel dunk, a Craft drive for a layup and a three by Ross off a pass from Shannon Scott as OSU went up 14-13 with 11:27 left in the half. A Ross three made it 19-15 with 9:37 left in the half.
Appling hit a bank shot for a 21-19 MSU lead but OSU regained it on a Thomas three off a Craft assist to make it 22-21 with 7:44 left.
Thomas had a steal and got the ball to Craft, who returned it to Thomas for a three. Thomas then got a layup off a Craft pass on the break to make it 28-23 with 4:24 left. But this is where OSU went cold. Nix scored twice inside and Payne had a putback dunk to put MSU up 29-28 at the break.
OSU regained the lead early in the second half as Craft had a steal and fed Lenzelle Smith Jr. for a layup and a 32-30 lead with 17:06 left. Craft then stole a long inbounds pass and scored for a 39-35 lead with 15:03 left.
“Aaron's steal on the inbounds going down the lane and up was big,” Matta said. “We needed to convert when we had numbers, that's for sure. Aaron made a great read on that one. He went back to his football days.”
The teams traded scores over the next several minutes before Payne tied it at 45-45 after making three free throws when he was fouled by Ravenel on a three-point attempt with 11:59 left.
Craft took control of the game here. Thomas set him up for a three on the right wing. Craft then drove the lane through traffic for a layup. He then hit a jumper in the lane and also hit a pull-up jumper to give the Buckeyes a 55-47 lead with 7:20 left.
Michigan State tapped out a long rebound to Appling, who hit a three from the top of the key to cut it to 57-53 with 3:23 left.
After an OSU turnover, MSU went inside to Nix. He hooked his way around Ravenel , made a layup and was fouled. His free throw cut it to 57-56 with 1:54 left.
Craft drove through the lane and as he passed Nix, Nix clubbed him on the shoulder and neck. The officials reviewed it on the monitor for about a minute before agreeing to rule it as an intentional foul.
“I agreed with the call based on the call that was made (on Ravenel) last Sunday (against Illinois),” Matta said. “It was explained that it was above the neck. I feel good about it.”
Izzo did not argue the call.
“It was the correct call on that play,” he said. “I don't think it was intentional. We got beat up top, and just felt like it was going to be a layup, so he reached out. And I've got absolutely no problem with the call. I thought I could see that from where I was. I guess they reviewed it and reviewed it and reviewed it. That's the first thing.
“Some of our players on the floor thought it was the right call, so hats off to them. For once in my life, the officials were correct, first time.”
Craft hit 1 of 2 free throws for a 58-56 lead with 1:27 left. OSU retained possession and milked the clock. Scott attempted a three and missed, but Thomas got the rebound with 50 seconds left.
“That was a big rebound,” Thomas said. “People talk about my scoring, but I rebound the well, too, for being an undersized four man. It was a big play and a big possession.”
OSU called timeout with 32.1 seconds left and 15 on the shot clock. After the inbounds play, Craft found Thomas on a curl on the left wing. He stepped into 16 feet and his jumper rolled around and fell in for a 60-56 lead with 22.3 seconds left.
“(Thomas shooting) was one of the options,” Matta said. “We knew bringing it that way if they switched on the pick-and-roll, that could happen. He, for once, was patient and let it develop and made a great shot.”
Thomas added, “It was a great. There are a lot of pro guys who have an off night but come down with a big shot. They told me to be patient and one would roll in. It felt great to see it hit the rim and bounce around and go in. It was just me being aggressive and staying ready.”
MSU called timeout with 18.6 seconds left. Appling drove the lane and had his shot deflected by OSU’s Thompson to Thomas.
“We knew coming out of that timeout, we had to get a stop,” Thompson said. “They ran a guard-to-guard screen and I got switched on to Appling. Give DT credit. He got a big rebound there, too.”
Thomas was fouled with 9.2 seconds left. He made 1 of 2 free throws for a 61-56 lead.
Denzel Valentine had a putback with 1.1 seconds left to cut the final margin to 61-58.
Izzo said Craft’s overall play was the difference.
“We did not do a very good job on [Aaron] Craft, and he beat us in a different way,” Izzo said. “The first time he beat us getting to the hole. He almost never got to the hole and this time he beat us with his jump shot.”
* Statistical anomalies: Thompson had eight points but no rebounds. Amir Williams had seven rebounds but no points. It was the second game here in Chicago where Thompson has failed to grab a rebound.
Ravenel added six points, four rebounds and two blocked shots, providing good post defense against the beefy Nix.
* With 16 points, Thomas moved into 17th place in all-time in career scoring at OSU with 1,524 points. He moved past Evan Turner (1,517 points). Next up is Tony Campbell in 16th place with 1,529.
* OSU owned a 15-6 advantage in bench points. The Buckeyes have a 587-379 edge over opposing benches in points scored this season.
* Michigan State shot 40 percent for the game (20-50). The Buckeyes have held opposing teams under 50 percent shooting in 29 of 32 games.
* The Buckeyes outscored Michigan State 11-0 on the fast break.
* The win makes Ohio State 25-11 all-time in the Big Ten tournament. That record includes all games played. (OSU had games from 1999-2002 vacated due to NCAA sanctions).
OSU is 18-5 in the tournament under Matta. He has the highest winning percentage of any coach in tournament history (.783) and is second on the all-time wins list in the event.
The Buckeyes have reached the championship game for the ninth time in 16 years of the tournament, including the last five years in a row. OSU has made the title game for the seventh time in eight years under Matta. OSU is now 9-1 in tournament semifinals. The Buckeyes are 4-4 all-time in the title game.
“It’s amazing,” Matta said of OSU’s success in the conference tournament. “You look at Deshaun, Aaron and Lenzelle, this will be their third time playing in the championship game. That is a tribute to them.”
* Matta’s teams are now 71-17 all-time in the month of March. That includes a 49-12 mark in nine years at OSU.
That record also includes a 29-6 all-time mark in conference tournaments, including six conference tournament titles in his first 12 years as a head coach.
* Michigan State still leads the all-time series at 61-52 overall. The teams split their season series with MSU winning the first match-up on Jan. 19 in East Lansing (59-56) and OSU winning the rematch in Columbus on Feb. 24 (68-60). OSU has won six of its last nine games with MSU.
OSU is now 3-2 against MSU in the Big Ten tournament all-time.
Under Matta (since 2004-05), OSU is 10-9 against Michigan State. Under Tom Izzo (since 1995-96), MSU is 21-13 against OSU.
* Coming into the game, Ohio State was 13th in RPI and MSU was ninth. OSU is now 4-5 against teams currently in the RPI top 25, 7-7 against teams in the top 50 and now 9-7 against teams in the top 100.
* In this week’s AP poll, Michigan State was eighth and Ohio State was 10th.
Matta’s OSU teams are now a combined 42-51 against ranked teams in his nine years with the Buckeyes.
OSU is 4-7 against ranked teams this year with their loss at then-No. 2 Duke on Nov. 29 (73-68), the home loss to then-No. 9 Kansas (74-66) on Dec. 22, the loss at then No. 11-Illinois (74-55) Jan. 5, the home win over then-No. 2 Michigan (56-53) Jan. 13, the road loss at then-No. 18 Michigan State (59-56) on Jan. 19, the road loss at No. 3 Michigan (74-2, overtime) on Feb. 5, the home loss to No. 1 Indiana (81-68) on Feb. 10, the loss at No. 20 Wisconsin (71-49) Feb. 17, the win over No. 4 Michigan State (68-60) on Feb. 24, the win at No. 2 Indiana (67-58) on March 5 and this win.
In 13 years as a college head coach, Matta’s teams are a combined 51-60 against ranked teams.
OSU is now 4-4 this year against top-10 teams. The Buckeyes are 66-118 all-time against top-10 teams.
* Ohio State has won seven straight since a Feb. 17 loss at Wisconsin.
During this winning streak, Craft has averaged 12.3 points, 6.0 assists and 2.6 steals.
* Ohio State advances to Sunday’s Big Ten tournament championship game to play No. 4 seed Wisconsin. The Badgers (23-10) defeated top-seeded Indiana 68-56 in Saturday’s first semifinal. OSU and Wisconsin split their season series with OSU winning in Columbus (58-49) and Wisconsin winning in Madison (71-49).
“We got them at our place, they got us up there,” Matta said. “We are a better basketball team than we were the first time we played them. But, unfortunately, so are they. They are playing at a high level right now.”
Thomas added, “This is another one of our dreams – a chance to cut down some nets. We know Wisconsin is a great team. We’ll be ready and focused for the Badgers.”
The championship game is set for Sunday at 3:30 p.m. on CBS with the NCAA bracket show following at 6 p.m.
In the latest bracketology predictions, ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi has Ohio State as a two seed in the West Region. CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm has Ohio State as a three seed in the South Region.
Asked if his team has secured a two seed, Matta said, “I would hope but I don’t know. By the start of our game tomorrow, our seeding will be set because we play so late. I’m happy that we’ve put ourselves in this position.”
* Click here for the box score from OSU-MSU.
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