Matta Played the Odds in Thursday’s First Half Gamble
By Brandon Castel
LOS ANGELES — Ohio State coach Thad Matta took a gamble Thursday night.
He bet on the right horse.
With his team trailing in the first half against a dangerous Arizona team, and his trusted point guard, the team’s fearless leader, sitting on the bench next to him with two fouls, Matta rolled the dice.
He waited to see if the 2-seed Buckeyes could weather the storm with Aaron Craft on the bench for the final nine minutes of the first half. He quickly realize they could not.
Photo by Jim Davidson
So with the game on the line and the season slipping away from Matta right before his eyes, he looked down the bench at No. 4 and made the decision to put him back on the floor.
Matta knew it would be a challenge, especially with Wildcats’ guard Mark Lyons playing as well as he was in this tournament, but Matta also knew Aaron Craft was up to the challenge.
“Being a junior, I’m expected to be able to play with two and not make a poor decision,” Craft said afterward.
“Don’t make a bad decision, two points isn’t worth a third foul. That’s something I’ve tried to learn throughout my years here, but that’s something that’s really tough for me to do.”
Taking away Craft’s physicality on defense is like forcing Deshaun Thomas to shoot right-handed. He could probably do it, and maybe be as effective as some of the other players on the court, but he wouldn’t be the same guy.
Craft had gotten himself into this position when he picked up a cheap second foul midway through the first half. He came off Lyons to swipe the ball away from Nick Johnson as he was driving to the basket.
It’s a play Craft has made a hundred times, and in the Big Ten it would have gone into the stats sheet as yet another steal by Ohio State’s all-time leader. This isn’t the Big Ten, and Craft quickly found himself sitting on the bench with his team down by seven just over 10 minutes into this Sweet Sixteen matchup.
If the Buckeyes had been playing the way they have throughout most of their current 11-game win streak, it might not have been a problem. Sophomore Shannon Scott has proven to be a very capable backup who can play starter minutes.
But the Buckeyes didn’t need a sophomore point guard on Thursday night. They needed their leader. They needed their general, the guy who keeps them calm when chaos is breaking out all around them.
And it was breaking out in the first half on Thursday night. With Craft on the bench, Arizona quickly ripped off a 9-5 run to take an 11-point lead on a three by Nick Johnson with 7:01 to play in the half.
Ohio State was teetering on the danger zone and only Deshaun Thomas was keeping the wheels from coming all the way off. Thomas cut the lead to nine with a jump shot, his 12th and 13th points of the first half.
Arizona pushed it back to 11 with a pair of free throws from Kevin Parrom at the 6:24 mark and Matta realized it was now or never.
“Freshman year I don't think I would have been able to do it,” Craft said of playing the final six and a half minutes with two fouls.
“I wouldn't be able to play with two fouls, I'd probably pick up that third one. But as the years have gone on I've learned and I've grown.”
With Craft in the game, the tides started to turn. He used a crafty hesitation move to get inside for an easy layup and then found Sam Thompson for an open three to cut Arizona’s lead to five in his first two minutes on the court.
Craft’s return sparked a 12-5 run by the Buckeyes to close out the first half. It could have been more. Thomas made it a four-point game with 1:12 to play in the first half, but actually left some points on the table in the first half.
He missed a jump shot and two point-blank layups in the final two minutes of the half that would have given the Buckeyes a lead heading into the locker room at the break.
“I don't play perfect,” he said while icing his knees in the locker room after the game.
“I missed some layups I probably should have made. I made some mistakes out there. I had a stupid foul at the end tonight, but trying to find a way to stay in the game with two fouls is huge.”
Matta’s gamble paid off, and because of it, the Buckeyes are headed back to the Elite Eight.
It could just as easily have gone the other way. Only Matta knew that it wouldn’t, or at least he figured it wouldn’t. He played the odds. He bet the right horse.
It makes it a lot easier when his name is Aaron Craft.
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