COLUMBUS, Ohio — Outside, inside — it didn’t matter. Michigan State basketball could not find an answer to stop Ohio State on Thursday night.
EJ Liddell and Jamari Wheeler draining 3-pointer after 3-pointer, Malakai Branham taking defenders off the dribble. Joey Brunk, starting his first Big Ten game of the season, abused every big man the Spartans used to try and stop him around the basket. The Buckeyes seemingly turning almost every MSU turnover into points, the Spartans continue to find few answers from a punchless offense.
The Spartans’ two-month swoon slogged on as they dropped their seventh game in the last nine and second in three days, 80-69, to No. 23 Ohio State at Value City Arena.
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“I mean, I’m angry with the way we played,” Izzo said. “And don’t anybody write that it was about the two days on the road and all that. If we would have lost down the stretch and been tired, I could swallow that. But this was the start. The start beat us, not the end.”
No. 25 MSU (19-11, 10-9 Big Ten) closes the regular season at home Sunday against Maryland. Tipoff is 4:30 pm at Breslin Center (CBS).
Four Buckeyes scored in double figures, led by 22 from Branham, 19 from Liddell and 16 from Wheeler despite playing without key contributors Kyle Young and Zed Key. Wheeler and Liddell had seven of their team’s nine 3-pointers, eight of them coming in the first half.
But it was the folk hero-making moment for Brunk, a 6-foot-11 center who entered the lineup averaging1.3 points and 1.0 rebounds, that proved to be the biggest gut-punch to MSU. He dominated in the paint with 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting and six rebounds as OSU outscored the Spartans in the paint, 36-16, as fans chanted his name every time he touched the ball or went in and out of the game .
Senior Gabe Brown, who led the Spartans with 13 points, said his team did not properly prepare for the former Indiana and Butler big man.
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“He wasn’t even on the scouting report,” Brown said of Brunk. “I mean, he was on there, on the back page. … And he had a phenomenal night tonight. He posted well, he had his jump hook, he made his free throws, got rebounds.”
Said Izzo: “I guess you could say it’s my fault for not doubling (Brunk). But, boy, if you have to double him…, shame on our guys.”
Senior Marcus Bingham Jr. scored 11 for the Spartans, who had a 36-3 edge in bench scoring but committed 13 turnovers leading to 20 points for the Buckeyes (19-9, 12-7). MSU went 9-for-18 from 3-point range and shot 45.3% overall, but its defense allowed OSU to shoot nearly 55% in a start-to-finish victory.
“We just gotta dig down, and we gotta start playing defense at the end of the day,” Brown said. “The offense is the offense. I don’t care if shots go in, but we gotta start playing defense.”
It began as badly as any of the Spartans’ recent rough games, maybe their worst.
Slow rotations and sloppy footwork on defense allowed Ohio State to bomb away from outside for four 3-pointers in its first seven shots. MSU also couldn’t stop Liddell, who had eight points as the Buckeyes scored the first 13 of the game.
The Spartans looked lifeless.
A loose ball rebound flipped a switch. Julius Marble and Malik Hall dove on the floor with Liddell. Players began pushing and shoving, with refs stepping in to stop the skirmish before it got out of hand.
The Spartans got hot from outside after that and worked their way back from an 18-4 deficit by rolling off a 21-9 run of their own as the Buckeyes went cold and fired up a few airballs thanks to better MSU defense. First Jaden Akins buried 3-pointer, then one from Joey Hauser and two from Brown, the second of which prompted Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann to call a timeout after seeing the lead drop to two.
That spark proved fleeting. The Buckeyes responded with nine straight points out of the timeout and a 13-2 run thanks to two more 3-pointers from Wheeler, taking a 43-33 lead into halftime.
OSU went 8-for-13 on 3-pointers and shot nearly 60% overall in the first half. Wheeler scored 12 by going 4-for-5 from deep, and Liddell also had 12 points with three 3-pointers. Brunk scored his 10 points all in the paint, which Bingham said came as a result of what the Buckeyes did to soften up the interior with their outside shooting.
“When they’re stretching the floor out and then guys are pushing up on them, we as bigs, we have to try to get them to come into the paint,” Bingham said. “And then when they come to the paint, commit to them. But they had a hell of a game plan, and they played hard.”
The Spartans trailed by double digits the entire second half, getting within 10 twice. Izzo barely left his chair on the sideline in the final 20 minutes.
“I think our guys gotta check their ticker a little bit, because sooner or later you got to reach down and guard somebody,” coach Tom Izzo said. “I mean, that’s not a skill, that’s an effort-related stat. I’ve always been able to get my teams to play harder, and right now I’m not. So that falls on me, and I’m gonna have to try to fix it.”
Izzo remains tied with Indiana legend Bobby Knight’s record for overall wins by a coach at a single Big Ten school with 662 in his 27th season with the Spartans. Knight remains the leader in conference victories with 353 in 29 seasons to Izzo’s 321.