Like most other kids, Aaron Craft used to dream about moments like this in his back yard – wearing the home-state school’s jersey on his back, deadlocked in a tie game with the clock slowly winding down and the crowd roaring in anticipation.
And like all other kids, something as precious as an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 berth was on the line.
Three ... two ... one.
“Then I’d take a charge or something like that,” Craft said with a smile.
It’s no wonder Ohio State’s junior point guard has grown into one of the best defenders in college basketball, a rare player who understands the true beauty of the game is found more in the plays that require floor burns than the ones that end with his hands on the rim.
But when Craft was living that dream March 24 with No. 2-seed Ohio State tied at 75 with 10th-seeded Iowa State, he wasn’t in the spot he placed himself during his childhood visions.
This was reality. The clock was ticking down, the shot clock was off and the next few seconds would likely determine the fate of both teams’ seasons.
Craft was at the top of the key, and unlike in his childhood dreams, he had the ball in his hands.
Three ... two ... one.
Craft waved his teammates away and then elevated over Iowa State forward Georges Niang for the last-second shot.
“We all knew it was going to go in,” OSU senior center Evan Ravenel told BSB. “He has a defense-first mentality and that’s his reputation, but we all trust Aaron and knew he would come up big for us.”
Three ... two ... one ... swish.
“The second it left his hands,” Ravenel said, “I knew we were going to win.”
And win Ohio State did, by a 78-75 margin to advance to the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive time. Next up for the Buckeyes is sixth-seeded Arizona in Los Angeles’ Staples Center on March 28 at 7:47 p.m. Eastern.
But Craft didn’t celebrate what’s ahead when he saw his shot go through the net with only 0:00.5 seconds remaining on the clock, even if it was the most definitive play of his already accomplished three-year career at Ohio State.
The game was over and Craft was the reason. But the junior remained true to his original reputation as a defender and, perhaps more importantly, as a leader.
“He was yelling at us all get back on defense,” Ravenel said. “We were all celebrating, and he kept yelling at us to D up and to stay focused. He wanted to make sure nothing crazy happened at the buzzer.”
Nothing did – Iowa State’s last-ditch attempt to complete another NCAA Tournament miracle had fallen way short of the hoop – and Craft walked off the floor as a winner – and a hero.
“I was just trying to stay focused and poised,” said Craft, who finished the game with 18 points, six assists and two steals. “We had confidence in about three or four guys at the end of the game who could have taken a shot. This game, it just happened to be me, and I was able to knock it down.”
Six weeks ago, the Buckeyes were exposed as a team with only one consistent scoring threat in junior swingman Deshaun Thomas, the player head coach Thad Matta originally intended to take the final shot vs. Iowa State when drawing up the last play.
Thomas tried to fight through a screen to get open, but Craft waved off the Buckeyes’ leading scorer when he recognized a ball screen had created a mismatch with the 6-7 Niang now defending him.
Niang had two options – to press up on Craft to take away his jumper or to slack off and prevent the quick point guard from getting to the rim. Niang made the correct choice since Craft’s jumper has been less than consistent all year, but the OSU guard stepped up in the moment and delivered the biggest shot of his career.
“That was a big-time shot by a big-time kid and a big-time player,” Matta said. “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 and die with any decision that kid makes.”
Today, Ohio State lives. And it didn’t matter that Craft seemed rattled.
Craft missed the front end of two one-and-ones, missed a layup, committed an unforced turnover and even broke down on a defensive assignment during a pivotal 13-0 run by Iowa State late in the game that brought the score even at 69 with 3:53 remaining.
Later, he made just 1 of 2 free throws to leave the score knotted at 75, setting up the need for his final-second heroics.
“I can tell you I would have felt pretty bad if we ended up losing that game,” Craft said. “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 basketball game. We had a chance to come down and win. That’s what it is all about.”
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