Craft Steals the Show, Passes the Praise
By Brandon Castel
PITTSBURGH — For once, Aaron Craft decided not to pass, at least until after the game.
Ohio State’s second-year point guard turned in a career night on the offensive end as the Buckeyes narrowly squeaked past a feisty Gonzaga team Saturday at the Consol Energy Center in downtown Pittsburgh.
Photo by Jim Davidson
With Jared Sullinger in early foul trouble and Deshaun Thomas seeing his first real wave of double-teams this season, Craft took over the game in a way OSU fans had rarely seen from him before.
“Craft was aggressive and you know when he’s in his mode, it’s hard to stop him,” OSU senior William Buford said in the locker room.
“He was getting to the rim, creating for himself and others. He had 10 assists too, so it’s a tremendous game.”
With 17 points and 10 assists, Craft recorded his first-ever double-double in just his fifth NCAA Tournament game. He had a career-high 15 assists in the second round against George Mason last year as a freshman, but this was different.
The Buckeyes needed this. Unlike their 98-66 win over the Patriots in Cleveland last March, this was anyone’s game to have from start to finish. Ohio State fell behind 24-20 midway through the second half and Sullinger was sitting on the bench after picking up his second foul.
Gonzaga’s lead swelled to as many as seven points while Sullinger was out of the game, but Craft simply wouldn’t allow them to pull away.
“I love the kid’s game,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
“I love how tough he is, how smart he is.”
With the Bulldogs focused on slowing down Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas, who had dropped 31 points on Loyola-Maryland two nights earlier, Craft went to work on the offensive end.
“We lost Craft a few times,” Few said.
“We didn’t stick with our ball screen coverage. We lost him twice and he was able to get some lay-ins on us, both at the end of the half and the start of the second half.”
Craft suddenly looked more like Mike Conley Jr. with his ability to either get to the basket and score, or find teammates in position to hit open shots.
“It was tough because Craft had a good game,” said Thomas, who scored 18 points on 7-15 shooting.
“With Lenzelle (Smith), and Will being the silent killer he is, it was tough for them to guard us. They can’t just focus on one guy.”
Not with Craft scoring and distributing the way he was.
Suddenly Ohio State looked like a different team offensively, even though Sullinger was struggling to score in the paint against Gonzaga big man Robert Sacre. Afterward, Craft was quick to dish the praise to his teammates.
“They did a good job of focusing on Jared and focusing on the other guys, that just kind of left me a little open,” Craft said, as if throwing a well-timed bounce pass.
“Fortunately enough, I knocked a couple down. That gave me confidence the rest of the game.”
There was no hesitation in Craft’s game against Gonzaga, not with the season on the line. He realized what his team needed on the offensive end and continued to do what he always does at the defensive end.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“It was tough,” said Gonzaga point guard Kevin Pangos, who scored just 10 points on 3-13 shooting.
“He’s a great defender. He’s got active hands, quick feet. There’s a reason why he’s known as one of the best defenders.”
In case Gonzaga had any doubts, Craft pilfered the ball from Pangos in the final seconds of the first half and scored on a layup with five seconds left to give the Buckeyes a 39-37 lead at the break.
“Defensively, he’s the best defender in college,” OSU head coach Thad Matta said.
“There’s nobody better than him in college basketball.”
And maybe nobody better in school history. With his three steals Saturday, Craft tied Mike Conley Jr. for the most steals all-time in a single-season at Ohio State. Thanks to the victory, he will have at least one more chance to break it.
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