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For the last 20 minutes, it looked like a missed opportunity.
But when No. 15 Ohio State's 56-53 win over No. 2 Michigan was over and done with – a game where OSU held on after squandering a 21-point lead – it was a crucial victory that once again solidified the Buckeyes (13-3, 3-1 Big Ten) as a real contender in the ultra-competitive Big Ten conference race.
"We didn't play our best when we played the better teams throughout this year," junior point guard Aaron Craft said. "We just kind of took a step back and tried to find a way to get a big win. Any time you can do it against a team like Michigan in this league… That's big."
The win gave Ohio State its first victory over a ranked foe this season after losing to Duke, Kansas and Illinois in its first three tries, all of which were ranked No. 11 or higher when the Buckeyes faced them.
Perhaps more importantly, OSU handed the last undefeated team in college basketball a loss and pulled even with the Wolverines (16-1, 3-1) in the Big Ten standings, avoiding what would have been an early two-game deficit a loss would have created.
"I hope we get confidence from this victory moving forward," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "I say that because we beat a great basketball team, but we still have a long way to go. … We are going to have a lot of opportunity in the Big Ten to play huge games."
Deshaun Thomas scored a game-high 20 points, Craft and Sam Thompson both added nine points and Lenzelle Smith Jr. added 10 rebounds for the Buckeyes, who earned their biggest win of the season in front of a sold out Value City Arena crowd (18,809).
Columbus-native Trey Burke led the Wolverines with 15 points, but missed on nine of 13 shot attempts from the field. Tim Hardaway Jr. added 12 points, but like Burke struggled with his shot, missing 10 of 15 attempts from the field.
A team that came into the game shooting 52.6 percent from the field, Michigan shot only 38.3 against the Buckeyes. As a result, the Wolverines scored 28 points less than their season average.
The weekend started with Duke and Michigan being the only two unbeaten teams in the country, but the No. 1 Blue Devils lost at N.C. State on Saturday. A win over OSU would have likely made the Wolverines the nation's top-ranked team when the polls are released on Monday.
"(Being the No. 1 team in the country) would have definitely been a great opportunity," Burke said, "but everything happens for a reason. Ohio State was the better team and we have to gem them credit."
Had Burke buried the three he took with 17 seconds left in the game that would have given Michigan a late one-point lead, the Wolverines would have asserted themselves as the nation's top team after completing the improbable comeback on the road.
Instead, it was Ohio State that held on to the win after times in the second half where Matta said his team lost its composure.
The Buckeyes' cushy 21-point lead was gone when Glenn Robinson III knocked down a three with 5:59 remaining in the game, marking the first time the Wolverines weren't trailing since Burke made the game's first bucket.
But Ohio State – who had struggled to adjust to Michigan's zone defense after getting to the basket with relative ease for much of the first half – scored the next six points on two buckets from senior big man Evan Ravenel and Thomas.
Again, Michigan fought back by forcing turnovers on Ohio State's next four possessions to cut the Buckeyes' lead to 52-50 with 1:14 remaining. Thomas later missed a forced leaner in the lane with 50 seconds left and Michigan corralled the rebound, setting up Burke's final shot.
Smith grabbed the tough rebound and nailed four free throws in the waning moments to seal the victory for the Buckeyes.
"We showed toughness and composure today," Thomas said. "They hit some big shots, got a couple steals, but we showed our composure and stayed together as a team and got some key rebounds at the end. That's what it's all about – get some stops and key rebounds and it's over."
For much of the first half, it looked like Michigan never would have the opportunity to take a shot that could have won it the game.
The Buckeyes forced turnovers on eight of the Wolverines' first 15 possessions and used a 16-0 run to help them jump out to a 29-8 lead in the first 13:08. During that span, OSU created offensive opportunities in transition off of turnovers, but also got easy scoring chances in half-court sets as it beat Michigan's man-to-man defense to the basket.
Michigan, however, set the tempo for its comeback by stifling OSU with a switch to zone defense. The Buckeyes had only five points in the final 6:51 of the first half and Michigan outscored them 14-5 during that stretch to cut the lead to 34-22, setting up a more manageable situation in the game's final 20 minutes.
"We came out too slow in the first half and missed (opportunities)," Burke said. "In the second half we came out like we should have come out in the first half. We just had too many turnovers and missed shots."