Aaron Craft shakes off second-half mistakes to send OSU to Sweet 16

DAYTON, Ohio -- What was Aaron Craft doing?

As the clock counted toward triple zero, the Ohio State point guard stood there dribbling.

He had just missed a potential game-winning jump shot and hadn’t hit a 3-pointer since the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament. Deshaun Thomas, one of the five best scorers in the country, was yelling for the ball.

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Craft had not played well over the final six minutes, turning it over twice, missing a layup, committing a silly foul and also missing the front end of back-to-back one-and-ones.

Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said after the game the Cyclones wanted to make Craft take a contested jump shot.

So there he was, dribbling the ball 25 feet from the basket, looking off his best offensive player, and playing right into Iowa State’s hands.

What was Aaron Craft doing?

It turns out Craft knew what he was doing the entire time.

The Ohio State junior point guard calmly pulled up from just outside the 3-point line and knocked down the game-winning 3 over Georges Niang with 0.5 seconds left to give the Buckeyes a 78-75 win on Sunday.

“I was just trying to stay focused and poised,” Craft said. “I did some things down the stretch that I don’t normally do. I just made a read. The shot I took before that felt pretty good. I thought I could make the next one.”

Craft didn’t play a perfect game, by any stretch. His struggles toward the end helped Iowa State come back from 13 points down with only six minutes left. Korie Lucious had blown by him for a few late buckets, and the Iowa State guards had gotten open for 3-pointers.

Even the Ohio State coaching staff wasn’t sure Craft had enough energy to make big plays down the stretch.

But head coach Thad Matta believed in him, his teammates believed in him -- and most important, Craft believed in himself.

“I hope someday they put a statue in front of our building of him,” Matta said on CBS after the game. “Coaches were telling me he’s exhausted. He’s too tough to be tired. What a big-time shot.”

Equally big was the controversial charge Craft drew on Will Clyburn with 1:41 left in the game and Iowa State clinging to a one-point lead. From many angles, it looked like Craft was still inside the restricted area -- where charges are not allowed to be drawn.

A bucket-and-foul would have potentially given Iowa State a four-point lead in the final two minutes, obviously changing the entire momentum of the game.

“I’m not sure if he got position or if he was there or not,” Clyburn said. “I really don’t have much to say about what the ref did or called.”

While there is plenty of debate about whether the refs made the correct call on that play, the game wasn’t decided by one call with 1:41 left. It was decided by the play of Craft in the final 30 seconds.

Why? Because this is what Craft does.

He’s one of the smartest players in the country, and his mental toughness is second to none. How many players would have put their head down after making mistake after mistake and watching a 13-point lead evaporate in a matter of 131 seconds? How many players would have wanted no part of a last-second 3-pointer after missing a jumper only seconds before?

The answer: plenty of players. But one of those players isn’t Aaron Craft.

“You’ve got to take your hat off to him,” Hoiberg said. “The kid stepped up and made a big shot. That’s who he is. He’s been making those his entire career at Ohio State.”

No one is going to remember Craft’s turnovers, his missed layup, his missed free throws. They’re not going to care that Craft isn’t a great shooter or isn’t an explosive offensive player. Thomas isn’t going to dwell on the fact that he didn’t touch the ball on the final few possessions, or wasn’t able to take the potential game-winning shot.

Craft makes big plays, winning plays, and is the primary reason Ohio State is heading to its fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance.

Would he have taken the same shot last season, or even a couple of months ago? Maybe not, but that doesn’t matter. He has the confidence to be a go-to-guy down the stretch -- don’t forget, he also finished a layup-and-foul with 2:35 left to give Ohio State a one-point lead.

The Ohio native wasn’t the most heralded player in Ohio State’s 2010 recruiting class, but he’s the one making the big plays in the 2013 NCAA tournament.

“Growing up in Ohio, Ohio State is always in the back of your mind,” Craft said.

Now, the same can be said for Craft and Ohio State fans. He’s a player Buckeye supporters will never forget. And he’s also the reason Ohio State is still playing.

So what was Aaron Craft doing?

I think he answered that question. 

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