INDIANAPOLIS -- The third time most certainly was not the charm for Ohio State against Michigan State.
The second-seeded Spartans (27-5) handled the seventh-seeded Buckeyes (20-13) 81-54 in Friday's Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, depositing Thad Matta's squad for the third time in 18 days to move on to play the victor of No. 11 Nebraska (16-17) and No. 3 Maryland (24-7) in Saturday's second semifinal at 3:30 p.m. It's the second straight season Michigan State has knocked Ohio State out of the Big Ten Tournament in the quarterfinal round.
In pursuit of their eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament bid, the quality win-lacking Buckeyes needed a victory over the Spartans to move back onto the bubble, but Michigan State's second-half surge was too much to overcome. Barring a miracle, Ohio State will play in its first National Invitational Tournament since winning the NIT to cap off its 2007-08 campaign. Prior to Friday's game, Big Apple Buckets projected the Buckeyes to garner a No. 3 seed -- and therefore, at least one home game -- in the NIT.
Ohio State was just 1-of-11 from three and turned the ball over 14 times, its offense stalling as the Spartans tightened their grip defensively after intermission.
"We really struggled with the spacing, we were sitting on top of each other," Matta said. "They play pressure (defense) but they’re packed in, and they’re designed to bring strong help. We couldn’t make them pay.
We got brain-locked a few times and didn’t finish off two feet like we talked about."
Michigan State sprinted out to an 11-5 advantage at the under-16 timeout, delivering the game's most riveting moment of the early going on a double alley-oop that culminated with a powerful jam by Deyonta Davis. Matta, who noted after Thursday's game that the reduction in timeouts per half from five to four this season has impacted his coaching style, looked as if he might signal for time following Davis' jam, but decided against doing so.
Over the next few minutes, Denzel Valentine began to assert himself, drilling back-to-back triples to push the Spartans' lead to 17-7, the latter a late-in-the-shot-clock back-breaker.
Michigan State was ahead 25-18 at the under-8 timeout, and upped that advantage to 32-21 on the first possession out of the timeout on another three by Valentine.
JaQuan Lyle, struggling to get anything going after a superb all-around effort vs. Penn State on Thursday, scored the Buckeyes' final two buckets prior to the timeout. That came after Lyle lost Bryn Forbes -- one of the best shooters in the country -- in a transition sequence that ended with a Spartan dunk. Lyle then turned the ball over and sounded off on teammate Daniel Giddens after an apparent mix-up. After a few words from Marc Loving, Lyle scored Ohio State's next four points before acquiring his second foul with 2:24 left in the half. After sitting on the bench, Lyle slammed a water bottle onto the ground, causing an on-court delay.
"He was frustrated tonight," Matta said of Lyle. "He’s got to learn to play through those types of situations and carry himself better."
A.J. Harris replaced Lyle and had a hand in the Buckeyes' final two field goals before half, assisting on a layup to Trevor Thompson and sinking a jumper with under a minute left.
At halftime, Ohio State trailed 33-26 despite six turnovers and going 0-for-4 from 3-point land and 4-of-7 from the free-throw stripe. Michigan State cooled off from its hot start from beyond the arc and converted four of its 14 triples through intermission. Valentine led all scorers with 14 points at half. Lyle paced the Buckeyes with seven points.
It was abundantly clear that the two teams were intimately familiar with one another. Michigan State walled off the paint, forcing plenty of contested mid-range jump shots from Ohio State, which had attempted 60 free throws over its past two games. The Buckeyes did a solid job of communicating in transition and limited the Spartans to just two fast break points.
Ohio State could not have started off any worse in the second half, yielding an 8-0 run capped by consecutive 3-pointers from Valentine and Eron Harris, the latter an open triple from the corner on a play that began with a bad pass turnover from Lyle. Matta called timeout, but the lead only grew, and the Spartans widened their lead to 51-32 with 13:37 remaining the second half.
The Buckeyes, playing without the injured Jae'Sean Tate -- who provides around-the-clock energy -- began to look fatigued at about this time in the game, with the Michigan State run fueled by transition buckets from Lourawls Nairns, Matt Costello, and an uncontested mid-range jumper from Valentine. At the under-8 timeout, Ohio State had trimmed its deficit -- which had ballooned to 20 points on two occasions -- to 61-47, with Kam Williams and Giddens providing some needed offense. However, Michigan State recovered quickly, bumping the margin to 73-47 at the final media timeout.
Valentine was his typical sensational self for the Spartans, flirting with a triple-double (19 points, nine rebounds, eight assists) in spite of an off-night from three (3-of-10 on triples). Harris, Davis, and Costello also reached double figures for Michigan State, which out-rebounded the Buckeyes by 11 and outscored Ohio State by 20 in the second half.
For the Buckeyes, Lyle led the way with 10 points. Loving had nine points and six rebounds.
3 things we learned
1. Ohio State failing to qualify for the NCAA Tournament is no shock. Entering Friday's game, of the 10 players to net the most minutes for the Buckeyes in 2015-16, four were sophomores and five were freshmen. Loving, the team's lone junior, Tate, a sophomore who has missed team's past five games and is out for the season, and Williams, a redshirt sophomore, were the lone returnees from the 2014-15 team to average at least double-digit minutes per game a year ago. This was an incredibly young team that could have folded in mid-January when it lost three road games by a combined 71 points over a four-game stretch, but instead rallied to win six of its last eight games coming into Friday's tilt, finding its stride in February and March like a typical Matta outfit.
2. The Buckeyes looked a little fatigued. While Ohio State did finish its regular-season slate strong, its final three league contests were two bruising games against Michigan State and another opposite Iowa. Friday, Matta's very young crew was playing its second game in as many days. Factor in Tate's absence, the Buckeyes' bubble status, and the physically and mentally grinding nature of going up against the Spartans, and it was not surprising to see Ohio State's halfcourt defense slowly allow more open looks.
"We reverted back to some November behavior tonight," Matta said. "I look at the poise and connectedness of (Michigan State), and there’s something to be said for seeing that."
3. Michigan State is the top team in the country. The Spartans failed to win the Big Ten regular-season title, are No. 2 in the Associated Press poll, and No. 3 in the KenPom.com rankings, but they have the author's vote as the top team in the nation. Valentine is unguardable in the college game, and with Costello, Forbes, and Harris around him, Michigan State is quite possibly on its way to its third straight Big Ten Tournament championship game, a record fifth Big Ten Tournament title, and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"They're a fantastic team," Loving said. "They played a really good game. Hats off to them."