As his final stat line shows, William Buford did not have much trouble seeing things develop on the court Sunday evening. Even so, there was a moment that had him rubbing his eyes in disbelief.
With top-seeded Ohio State fending off an early upset challenge from eighth-seeded George Mason, Buford was taking a breather on his team’s bench near the midway point of the first half en route to scoring 18 points. At the opposite end of the court, freshman point guard Aaron Craft appeared to be pinned on the right side of the floor near midcourt.
Ranging to his right, Craft somehow collected himself and fired a one-handed pass on a line to classmate Jared Sullinger in the paint 30 feet away. Arriving in the forward’s hands after somehow zipping through what seemed like the entire Patriots defense, Sullinger laid it in and drew the foul in the process.
The exchange left the usually reserved Buford gushing afterward in his team’s locker room at Quicken Loans Arena.
“I’ve never seen a pass like that,” Buford said. “He zipped that in there. I was on the bench like, ‘Did he just make that? That was crazy.’ I didn’t think it was going to get through there. That’s tremendous. That’s great.”
Impressive as the pass was, it was just one of 15 assists handed out by the freshman in 34 minutes off the bench. In addition to being the fourth-most helpers ever given out in NCAA Tournament history, it was the best such performance in the history of the Buckeyes.
Head coach Thad Matta said he can do better.
“I know before his time’s over, he’s going to beat that record,” the coach said. “It’s who he is. He’s that competitive.”
Entering the game, Craft’s season high was nine assists dished out in a season-opening blowout against North Carolina A&T. His season total now stands at 175, the sixth-best mark for a season in OSU history and second-best among freshman.
Both records are held by Michael Conley Jr., who handed out 238 as a freshman during the 2006-07 season. That squad advanced to the national championship game.
As he has done in all but one game this season, Craft came off the bench for the Buckeyes and entered at the 16:39 mark. Thirty-two seconds later, he assisted on a David Lighty three-pointer that snapped an 11-2 opening run by George Mason.
His final helper went to senior forward Dallas Lauderdale, who became the sixth Buckeye to benefit from Craft’s generosity when his dunk with 6:39 remaining made it an 89-52 OSU lead.
The Buckeyes hit 16 three-pointers in the contest, a school record for the tournament. Craft assisted on nine of those, with the primary beneficiary being senior forward David Lighty. While hitting on all seven of his attempts from deep, Lighty nailed four of them on gives from his freshman teammate.
Lighty described Craft’s savvy as “unbelievable.” Senior guard Jon Diebler, who hit three three-pointers on passes from Craft, said the performance was nothing more than what the Buckeyes usually expect.
“We definitely appreciate that, when he’s getting in the paint and finding us for shots,” Diebler said. “Tonight we were fortunate enough to knock them down. Aaron is going to do what he does every night: play defense and he hit some big shots for us coming off of ball-screens and getting to the paint. He’s a great guy to have on the team.”
In all, Craft handed out 41 of OSU’s 98 points and scored six of his own. He also added six rebounds, one shy of a career high.
The dish to Sullinger was not the only worthy of the highlight reels, however. At the end of the first half, Craft corralled a Buford miss in the closing seconds and found Diebler on the wing, who buried the shot to set the score at 52-26.
In the second half, Craft lost his dribble and dove onto the court to corral the ball. He managed to get there a second before Diebler’s defender, who also dove, and kicked it to his senior on the left wing. The Big Ten’s career leader in three-pointers buried it and drew contact, finishing a four-point play that made it 87-49 with 6:59 left in the game.
“I was upset that I lost the ball in the first place,” Craft said. “I happened to see Jon’s guy come off and try to get it, and I happened to get it to him. And just like most of the assists today, I mean, they knocked down the threes for me.”
As for the first-half assist to Sullinger, Craft said, “He can catch the ball, so I just had to put it in an area where he could grab it. The guy guarding Dave was in between, so I took a chance and threw it to Sully and he as able to catch it and finish it for me.”
At the end of the night, that was the play that had his teammate reminiscing about Craft’s days as a quarterback for Findlay (Ohio) Liberty-Benton.
“It’s real important from a point guard to get everybody the ball,” Buford said. “He gets people the ball in their hotspots. He knows where they are. He knows where your hands are going to be and he gets you the ball. That shows off his quarterback skills.”
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