EAST LANSING, Mich. — There was no denying Cassius Winston on Senior Night.
Inside a building where Ohio State has not experienced success since Chris Holtmann was coaching at Gardner-Webb, the No. 19 Buckeyes closed their regular season with an 80-69 loss to No. 16 Michigan State on Sunday afternoon inside the Breslin Center.
Winston was omnipresent, finishing with a game-high 27 points and six assists including the game-changer.
Having trailed by as many as 12 points during the first half, the Buckeyes (21-10, 11-9 Big Ten) twice pulled even with Michigan State (22-9, 14-6) during the first five minutes of the second half. They came up unsuccessful on five possessions with a chance to take the lead, and from there the Spartans started to pull away.
The back-breaker came with 9:36 to play. With the Spartans’ lead at 56-51, Winston spied wide-open teammate Rocket Watts in the left corner. His cross-court pass from the right wing hit the freshman right in the numbers, and he hit the three-pointer as CJ Walker arrived late on a close-out.
Walker fouled Watts, who hit the free throw for a four-point play to make it a 60-51 lead, and the Buckeyes never recovered. Watts hardly saw the pass, and he never saw the ball go down, lying flat on his back as the sold-out crowd roared.
Ohio State has now lost seven straight inside the Breslin Center since William Buford’s famous shot beat the Spartans for the regular-season conference title in 2012. The Buckeyes had won nine of their last 11 games including four straight entering Sunday, and their final place in the league standings will be determined by Sunday’s late game between Illinois and Iowa.
The Spartans closed the season by winning five straight and clinched a share of the league’s regular-season title.
With 22 seconds to play in the half, Walker, an 83.3% free-throw shooter in Big Ten play who had hit 35 of his last 39 (89.7%), drew a second foul on Winston and went to the free-throw line with the deficit at 36-32.
He missed the front end of the one-and-one, and the Spartans pushed the ball upcourt to get the final possession of the half. As the seconds ticked off, senior Xavier Tillman Sr. was caught in the right corner by an Ohio State double team and had to throw up a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer.
It found only the bottom of the net for what could have been as much as a four-point swing and Michigan State took a 38-32 lead into the half.
The Spartans did plenty of damage on the glass, outrebounding the Buckeyes 21-15, holding the Buckeyes to just one offensive rebound and finishing with a 10-0 advantage in second-chance points.
That the halftime margin was just six points would have seemed unlikely early in the half as the Spartans rode the emotions of senior night and an offensive outburst by Watts to a 21-10 lead through the first eight minutes. Watts scored eight straight points, the last six on back-to-back threes, to force Ohio State to call timeout with the deficit at 16-7.
But after trailing 31-19 with six minutes to play, Ohio State used a Duane Washington Jr. three-pointer, a Walker layup and a pair of free throws from Kaleb Wesson to climb back into it with a 7-0 run.
Washington led the Buckeyes with 16 points. Walker had 14.