Craft plays forward, saves OSU at end
March, 24, 2013
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com
DAYTON, Ohio -- With less than 5 seconds left in a tied game, perhaps the best pure scorer in the country came off a pair of screens that did exactly what they were designed to do: get him open.
Deshaun Thomas called for the ball -- screamed for it, waved his hands high above the 6-foot-7 inch frame that had made him essentially unguardable for the first 39 minutes and 55 seconds of his team's second-round NCAA tournament thriller -- but the pass never came.
Instead, a 6-foot-2 point guard -- who spent most of the second half turning the ball over and missing key free throws, who was being guarded by the opposing team's tallest player, who hadn't attempted a 3-pointer all afternoon and averages just 29.3 percent from beyond the arc this season -- looked him off.
To say Aaron Craft faced pressure in the final seconds of Ohio State's 78-75 win over Iowa State Sunday is to state the incredibly obvious, but that pressure wouldn't have come solely from Buckeyes fans, who would have surely blamed him for a heartbreaking second-round upset loss. Craft would have had one unhappy teammate, too.
"I don't think I would have been angry," Thomas said. "I think I would have said, 'OK, let's go out and win the overtime, let's win the next five minutes.'"
Frank Victores/USA TODAY SportsAfter a rough second half, Ohio State guard Aaron Craft drained the game-winning shot.
"Oh, man -- furious," point guard Lenzelle Smith said, laughing. "He would have been furious."
Fortunately for him, and fortunately for the Buckeyes, what looked like another in a series of uncharacteristically bad decisions ended up the best and most important play of Craft's career -- saving Ohio State from becoming just the latest upset victim in a West Region that has already claimed the No. 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7 seeds.
Only Craft can really say what he was feeling in that moment, and he wouldn't quite admit to being nervous. When asked about whether he had "butterflies," he admitted only to "probably a little" before promptly cutting himself off.
But if he was nervous, he had good reason. Craft's second half had been the type of cold-sweat nightmare that keeps players up at night, particularly the stretch between the 5:35 and 3:08 marks, when Craft, in sequence, committed a turnover, missed a layup, missed two consecutive one-and-one front ends and committed yet another turnover. In the meantime, as Iowa State scorched its typical assortment of 3s and free throws, Ohio State's 69-56 lead dwindled to a 72-71 deficit. If 12,000 people gulping in unison makes a sound, it filled UD Arena.
"You just try to move on to the next play," Craft said.
For Craft, the next play was a driving layup and a foul, followed shortly thereafter by a drawn charge that immediately looked questionable (at best) and required a statement from NCAA National Coordinator of Men's Basketball Officiating John Adams just minutes after the game. ("I spoke with the official, and he determined the defender established legal guarding position outside the restricted area prior to the offensive player leaving the floor to start his shot. When asked, the official said he did not see the defender’s foot over the restricted area line. By rule, this is not a reviewable play.")
That pivotal call created the conditions for Craft's indelible March Madness moment. But so did coach Thad Matta with his team's "play-forward" attitude, which takes the get-the-next-play cliché to an almost spiritual level.
"I didn't [think] anything about the play behind [me]," Craft said.
"Good players at this level, you can't let stuff like that affect you," Smith said. "You have to move on. You have to have a short-term memory.
"Aaron, the player that he is, he knew that shot was going in before he shot it, because he told himself it was going in. Then he stepped up and knocked it down."
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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35