CHICAGO - Aaron Craft dominated down the stretch for Ohio State and just about left his coach speechless in the process.
Even though he had seen it before, Thad Matta struggled for a moment to find the right words to describe his point guard. Once he did, he couldn't stop himself. Seems appropriate, considering Michigan State couldn't stop him when it mattered most, either.
Craft came on strong in the second half to finish with 20 points and lead No. 10 Ohio State past No. 8 Michigan State, 61-58 on Saturday in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament.
"You look at what he's accomplished thus far in his career at Ohio State and just the wins and the big plays that he's made -- in coaching, you don't get to coach a lot of guys like him just from A to Z and everything he stands for," Matta said. "He kind of makes us go on both ends of the floor. Obviously, he was making shots. A lot of people panicked when he wasn't scoring in the middle of the season, and I'm like, `I don't have a problem with it. It'll come.' He loves these types of games, there's no question about it. He's big for us."
Craft keyed a seven-point spurt midway through the second half that stretched the lead to 55-47, and the Buckeyes (25-7) came away with the win after the Spartans (25-8) pulled within one. The victory avenged a loss in last year's championship game.
It was 57-56 after Derrick Nix converted a three-point play for Michigan State with 1:54 remaining, but Craft hit a free throw. Thomas grabbed a huge rebound off a missed 3 by Shannon Scott to keep the possession going and scored in the paint after a timeout to make it a four-point game, sending the Buckeyes back to the conference final.
They'll go for their third championship in four years when they meet No. 22 Wisconsin, a 68-56 winner over top-seeded and third-ranked Indiana in the other semifinal.
Craft scored all but two of his points in the second half. He also had nine assists and four steals in the game.
"Just trying to believe in myself," he said. "I think we have a lot of plays that we can execute that get me open shots and help me create for someone else."
Thomas scored 16 even though he hit just 6 of 19 shots -- 2 of 11 3-pointers -- and the Buckeyes won their seventh straight.
Nix led Michigan State with 17 points and nine rebounds. Keith Appling scored 16 points, but the Spartans came up short in this one. Gary Harris finished with five points, and coach Tom Izzo said he "popped" his shoulder. That certainly did not make things easier. But Izzo didn't have to search long and hard to find a bright spot after this loss.
"I am really looking forward to playing somebody else," he said. "I think the other Big Ten teams are. We've really beaten the hell out of each other. I really believe the toughest teams, the ones who have been through the most, is going to benefit. I'm looking forward to playing anybody. I'd rather play the Lakers tomorrow instead of these teams we've played recently."
In a game that was neck-and-neck for about the first 29 minutes, Craft gave Ohio State some breathing room when he scored on a layup and a pair of jumpers to cap a seven-point spurt and make it 55-47 with 7:22 remaining.
Michigan State hung in, and things got real interesting when the 6-foot-9, 270-pound Nix converted that three-point play with 1:54 left.
"When we get the ball into Nix and our inside guys, a lot of good things happen -- especially when the ball is in Nix's hands," Michigan State's Branden Dawson said.
Not enough good things happened for the Spartans, though. So Ohio State is moving on.
Wisconsin handed the Buckeyes their most lopsided loss of the season when they fell 71-49 in Madison on Feb. 17. Since then, they've lost.
"We stayed together as a team and we played hard," Thomas said. "We know not to give up and to stay together when things are going down."
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