Craft’s Dagger Part of His DNA
By Brandon Castel
DAYTON, Ohio — Aaron Craft took one dribble past Korie Lucious then looked up at the clock.
Still 19 seconds.
Too much time, so he pulled it back out. A very Aaron Craft thing to do. The Buckeyes’ heady point guarded needed to make sure his team was going to get the last look at the basket before this game was thrust into overtime.
Photo by Jim Davidson
He knew the play.
Get the ball to Deshaun Thomas. Always get the ball to Deshaun, especially when he’s making shots the way he has in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
“Obviously, D.T.'s going to want the ball in that situation,” Craft acknowledged.
Especially in the tournament. Deshaun Thomas loves the tournament, needs it even. Thomas has made over 50 percent of his shots (62 of 122) in 10 NCAA Tournament games dating back to his freshman year at Ohio State.
He scored 24 on Friday night against Iona and 22 on Sunday against Iowa State. He was feeling it, too, going 16 of 26 in the first two games of the Big Dance.
“In my mind, I’m like if I get the ball I have to put this in the hole,” Thomas would say after.
LaQuinton Ross was out there too. He’s earned the right to be on the floor for such a critical moment with his play over the last two weeks. The sophomore from Mississippi was at his best on Sunday, ripping off a stretch of 10 straight points in the second half on his way to 17-point outburst.
It’s the most Ross has scored since nonconference play back in early December, and when he has his feet set and ready to shoot, it’s a thing of beauty. He was ready for it on that final play, but Craft didn’t give it to him either.
“I had LaQuinton's screen and some back side action with Deshaun, obviously, coming off a couple, wanted to get him open, get him a shot,” Craft said afterward.
“If one play is taken away, the best part about this team is other guys can make plays. LaQuinton could make a shot. D.T. can obviously make shots like that.”
Photo by Jim Davidson
But this time, Craft kept it for himself. When Ohio State’s junior point guard realized the Cyclones had switched on a ball screen, he saw nothing but space between him and Iowa State freshman Georges Niang.
“I got their biggest guy on me and made a read,” Craft said of what he saw on that final play.
“The shot I took right before that felt pretty good. I thought I could make the next one and fortunately enough, it went in.”
Iowa State’s 6-7 forward had tried to start something with Craft a little earlier, throwing a shoulder into the 6-2 guard during a timeout, so it was fitting Craft would come back and make him pay with his actions instead of his words.
“That’s who he is,” Iowa State Coach Fred Hoiberg said.
“He’s been making those shots his entire time at Ohio State.”
Big plays, yes. Big shots, not so much.
Craft has played alongside guys like Thomas, Jon Diebler, William Buford, David Lighty and Jared Sullinger during his three-year career at Ohio State. He hasn’t had to take too many shots like the one he one buried on Sunday over Niang’s outstretched hand.
Hoiberg did get one thing right, though. That is who he is. Whether it’s stealing the ball, taking a charge, finding the open man, grabbing a key rebound or hitting a dagger three with 0.2 seconds on the clock, Craft makes the plays that win games.
That’s why it was so surprising when he almost gave the game away in the minutes leading up to that redeeming game-winner.
“I did some things down the stretch I don't normally do,” Craft admitted.
“I missed some shots and missed some free throws.”
His first one was the big one. Iowa State had cut Ohio State’s 69-56 lead to 69-61 when Craft missed a contested layup. The lead was down to six when he went to the line for a one-on-one, but his first one clanged off the right side of the rim.
Lucious made a tough layup at the other end and Craft was fouled again on the drive. Again he missed the front of a one-and-one that could have put an end to Iowa State’s run.
“I would have felt pretty bad if we ended up losing the game,” Craft admitted.
“My teammates did a great job of staying encouraging after I did some things that I don’t normally do. They stuck with me, and whatever was going on we were still in the game.”
Craft’s most uncharacteristic mistake came with Ohio State trailing 72-71 with just over three minutes left in the game. He turned the ball over at midcourt and then fouled Tyrus McGee to keep him from getting a free layup.
Ohio State’s leader looked rattled, but that’s simply not in his DNA.
“The coaches were telling me, ‘He’s exhausted, he’s exhausted,’” Matta said. “I’m like, ‘he’s too tough to be tired.’”
Most guys would have hung their head or looked around for a teammate to blame, but Craft kept his cool. Instead of getting flustered, he simply got even.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“Any time he gets scored on or does something wrong on the offensive end, his mentality is to get it back,” OSU assistant coach Jeff Boals told The-Ozone.
“He’s got a lot of pride and wanted the ball in his hands at the end.”
After pulling the ball back out on his initial drive, it had to catch everyone in the building off guard when he pulled up for a do-or-die three in the final second of the game. A miss would have meant overtime, but Craft simply wasn’t going to let that happen.
It’s just not in his DNA.
“That was a big-time shot by a big-time kid and a big-time player,” Matta said outside the OSU locker room.
“He made the right read, there’s no doubt about that. I was fine with it. I have said this from day one – I will live with any decision that kid makes.”
Especially when it ends like this one did.
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