Craft, Buckeyes Falter Down the Stretch at Duke
By Brandon Castel
DURHAM, N.C. — With 49 seconds left, a hostile Duke crowd joyfully waved goodbye to Aaron Craft.
Ohio State’s star point guard had picked up his fifth foul and was headed to the bench; with him went any chance for victory in a raucous Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday evening.
Not because Craft had turned in a heroic performance on the road against a Duke team that will likely be ranked No. 1 in the country when the next polls are released – “We’re a much better team this year,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We were good last year, but we’re much better now.”
His team didn’t look much better in the first half than the one that lost by 22 points in Columbus last season. The Buckeyes (4-1) led the Blue Devils (7-0) 31-23 at the break despite the fact preseason All-American Deshaun Thomas played only 10 minutes because of foul trouble.
But Craft could not make Krzyzewski’s team pay for selling out to keep the ball out of the hands of Ohio State’s best, and at many times only, scorer down the stretch.
“Especially in the second half, they weren’t leaving Deshaun,” OSU head coach Thad Matta said after the game.
“So (Craft) getting in there, those were the ones we knew we were going to have to make. I’ll be honest, Aaron had some great looks at the basket and they just didn’t go for him. He was pressured there on the one turnover that was kind of costly.”
The junior point guard, who was so critical in Ohio State’s Final Four run a year ago was just 3-of-15 from the floor on Wednesday and 1-of-4 behind the arc. He turned the ball over three times and had only one assist in a 73-68 loss to the No. 2-ranked Blue Devils.
After briefly extending their lead to 10 points on a tip-in by Lenzelle Smith, Jr. early in the second half, the Buckeyes still led 51-46 with 8:26 to play in the game thanks to a silk-smooth three by Thomas from the wing.
He had 16 points at the time, but would get just two more shots in the final eight minutes of the game – none in the final minute – as the Buckeyes fell behind by as many as eight with 1:04 left in the game.
Ohio State made its free throws down the stretch, and Duke struggled at the line, twice missing on the front end of a 1-and-1 before sophomore Quinn Cook finally sealed the victory for the Blue Devils with six straight free throws in the final 27 seconds of the game.
“Quinn played a great game,” Kryzewski said.
“He was up against one of the best point guards in the United States, as good an on-ball defender as there is, and Quinn had eight assists and three turnovers…his six defensive rebounds were the key stat in the game.”
The Buckeyes actually won the battle on the boards, 40-37 and they dominated the offensive glass in the first half, but they gave up two big ones when it mattered most. The first came on offensive rebound by Duke’s All-American Mason Plumlee with 5:42 to play.
The Blue Devils kicked it back around to senior Ryan Kelly, who drained a three from the top of the arc to give Duke it’s first lead since the opening minutes of the game. Moments later, Plumlee would grab another offensive board, and this time he would slam it home with authority to send the Cameron Crazies into a fury.
“He has always been a really good player, he is just a terrific player now,” Kryzewski said of Plumlee, who finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds.
“It is called maturity and learning the game. It is all on him to get better and he has paid the price to get better, and he is one of the best players in the country. His performance tonight was magnificent.”
To make matters worse for the Buckeyes in the second half, they could not stop Duke freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, who scored all 17 of his points after the break. As a result, the Blue Devils shot 58 percent from the floor as a team in the second half and made four of their five attempts from behind the arc.
“On the road sometimes on the offensive end shots won't fall, but we had to get some stops and we didn't get stops,” said Thomas, who finished with 16 points and two rebounds in 30 minutes.
Ohio State, on the other hand, shot just 35 percent in the second half, as they were outscored 50-37 to close out the game.
“We stopped attacking because we had to take the ball in-bounds because they were scoring every time,” said Matta, who admitted he should have given LaQuinton Ross a chance earlier in the second half.
“That was probably the biggest thing, we weren’t able to get out and get into our flow because they were shooting the ball so well.”
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