INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Aaron Craft sat at the postgame podium in sheer disbelief Saturday.
After making so many winning plays for Ohio State over the last four seasons, the senior guard simply couldn’t believe this one slipped right out of his hands – and against the Buckeyes’ biggest rival.
No. 24 Ohio State rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit, took the lead, then gave it back after scoring just one point in the final four minutes and wound up losing 72-69 to No. 8 Michigan. Craft had a chance to tie it in the closing seconds but he lost the ball on the way up and the Wolverines grabbed the loose ball.
“You’ve got to step up for your team in that moment, and I didn’t,” Craft said.
Instead of celebrating, the defending tourney champs were angry that this one got away.
One day after rallying from an 18-point second-half deficit to beat Nebraska, the Buckeyes came back to take the lead again – only to watch it disappear amid Michigan’s closing 7-1 run.
LaQuinton Ross had 19 points, Shannon Scott had 18 and Craft finished with nine points and seven assists as Ohio State (25-9) lost for only the third in time in 10 games.
But it was the play Craft couldn’t make that sealed the Buckeyes’ fate.
“It was amazing to just watch on the sideline,” said Craft, who went to the bench with his fourth foul with 11:44 to play. “They were doing a phenomenal job. They finally got us a lead, we got over that hump, and just down the stretch I was hoping I could come in and make a difference.”
For top-seeded Michigan (25-7), the Big Ten regular season champs, it was a monumental victory.
The Wolverines hadn’t won a semifinal game since 1998, when they won the first tournament only to vacate it because of NCAA rules violations. Since then, the Wolverines hadn’t even won two straight games in the league tourney and had lost all six times they played the dreaded Buckeyes in Indianapolis or Chicago.
Not this time.
They started the game with an offensive flurry and ended it with a stout defensive stretch that turned the game for the final time.
Big Ten player of the year Nik Stauskas finished with 18 points. Ohio native Caris LeVert had 17 points and seven rebounds and Glenn Robinson III wound up with 11 points including two free throws that gave Michigan the lead for good with 2:55 to play.
The Wolverines won their seventh straight in large part because they were 12 of 23 on 3-pointers against the Big Ten’s top-rated 3-point defense and didn’t a basket over the final four minutes.
The only thing sweeter than beating the Buckeyes would be winning Sunday’s title game against either No. 12 Wisconsin, the No. 2 seed, or another rival, No. 22 Michigan State, the No. 3 seed. The Wolverines split the season series with Wisconsin and swept the two-game series with the Spartans. A win would likely put them in position to be considered for a top seed in next week’s NCAA tournament.
“We weren’t thinking about winning the Big Ten Conference championship, the tournament,” Stauskas said. “We were thinking about just beating Ohio State. This is a rivalry game.”
Getting to Sunday was not easy.
Michigan blew a 13-point lead in Friday’s quarterfinal victory, surviving a scare from ninth-seeded Illinois when Jordan Morgan’s layup rolled in with 7.9 seconds to go and needed a similar closing act to win Saturday.
The Wolverines jumped to a 15-2 lead before Ohio State climbed back within 41-37 at halftime.
Ohio State gave up three more 3s to open the second half as the Spartans pushed the lead to 54-42.
Again the Buckeyes rallied, using a 10-2 spurt that ended with Sam Thompson’s alley-oop dunk, giving Ohio State its first lead at 61-60.
That’s when last year’s national runner-up buckled down defensively.
Michigan cut the Ohio State lead to 68-67 on an 18-foot jumper from Stauskas and regained the lead when Robinson made the two free throws.
The Buckeyes couldn’t get anything to go over the final four minutes, missing five straight shots and three of four free throws before the ball slipped out of Craft’s hands at the end.
“I feel so fortunate right now,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “You look at so many of our games down the stretch here, they’ve ended just like this and the ball keeps bouncing our way. You only can have that type of luck if you have guys like these guys sitting next to me. They make enough smart plays to keep you in the game, and some games the ball will just bounce your way.”