NCAA BK

Craft plays hero with game-winner

Ohio State Buckeyes guard Aaron Craft (4) shoots the winning shot against Iowa State Cyclones forward Georges Niang (31)
Aaron Craft was clutch when it counted most for Ohio State.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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DAYTON, Ohio

The shot went up, and all John Craft paid attention to was its arc.

It hadn’t been a pretty last few minutes for his son, pesky and reliable Ohio State junior guard Aaron Craft. With 4:40 left in the game, Aaron Craft stood at the foul line, his Buckeyes up six on an Iowa State team that had made more 3-pointers this season than any team in college hoops. Iowa State was a team that could close that gap as quick as any, so Craft’s 1-and-1 free throws were vital.

He missed the front end. Iowa State grabbed the rebound, sprinted down the floor, and 14 seconds later Tyrus McGee hit a 3 to bring the Cyclones to within three. Craft was fouled again, and again missed the front end of a crucial 1-and-1. From Section 229, Row F of University of Dayton Arena, behind the Ohio State bench and even with the free-throw line, John Craft could tell: The arc on his son’s shots was flat. “Alright Aaron, some free throws would be nice,” tweeted Craft’s little sister, Cait, a freshman guard for Ohio State’s women’s team.

A layup and a made free throw by Iowa State’s Korie Lucious knotted the game up.

It got worse for Aaron Craft. With Iowa State up one, Craft was dribbling and looking toward his bench for the play call when McGee swatted the ball away. It went out of bounds off Craft, and in the stands his dad noted that he’d talk with his son after the game about that lazy turnover. Then he was called for a dumb foul on the next possession. Later, with 1:15 left and the Buckeyes down one, Craft had two more free throws. He only made one of them, and the game was tied at 75.

Momentum was swinging in the wrong direction. With all of his late-game miscues at the offensive end, if 2-seed Ohio State lost and didn’t making the Sweet 16, Craft might be the goat.

But the key to Craft’s game has always been defense, not driving down the lane or nailing big shots. His father remembers when he was growing up playing with his older brother, Brandon. Aaron Craft couldn’t keep up athletically with the boys who were three years older, but he could out-work them, out-pester them, out-defend them.

So there Craft was, standing a few feet away from the defending basket as Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim swooped in for a layup that would’ve put Iowa State up by a couple. His feet were planted. Maybe Craft was standing just inside the restricted area, maybe he wasn’t, but the official called a charge, and the call wasn’t reviewable: Ohio State ball. So the ball was again in Craft’s hands when the shot clock was turned off, the game tied at 75, the seconds winding down, one final chance at redemption.

Ohio State forward LaQuinton Ross set a screen for Craft. Craft’s father thought the play was a pick-and-pop. It wasn’t. Iowa State switched their defenders, so lumbering big man Georges Niang was now defending Craft. Instead of passing to Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State’s go-to man the entire season, Craft waved off the leading scorer. Craft’s dad watched the big man play off his son a step, and watched his son step back and launch his first 3-point attempt of the game.

John Craft saw the ball’s arc. It was high and true, better than those free throws from minutes before. John Craft thought about a game back in high school, when he was standing courtside, yelling instructions at the end of a tie game against their main rival. Back in high school Craft had stared directly at his father: “I got this,” he told him, then dribbled up to a wing, stepped back, and nailed a game-winning 3.

At the University of Dayton Arena, the same thing happened, only from the opposite wing. Craft’s shot went through. The scarlet-and-gray crowd went crazy over the best buzzer-beater of this tournament. With only .5 seconds left on the clock, the game was over, Craft’s Ohio State team heading to their fourth Sweet 16 in as many years.

“I guess those free throws are forgiven,” Craft’s sister tweeted.

In the time it took for a shot to go from Aaron Craft’s hands and through the hoop, he switched identities: From goat to hero, from the defense-first scrapper who didn’t take the big shots to the kid who made the biggest shot so far in this tournament.

“I saw the same thing Aaron saw,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said afterward. “It was right in front of us… I was perfectly fine with the shot. As Aaron said, I knew the time, the situation, we were going into overtime if it didn’t go in. We had told him when we took the timeout, let’s get the last shot and go for the win. He could have timed it maybe .5 too long, but it was pretty good timing on his part."

After the game, a blockade of about 40 reporters and cameramen sealed the entry into Ohio State’s locker room. There was no getting through.

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“Aaron Craft is available out in the tunnel,” an Ohio State PR person said.

Reporters stampeded out of the locker room, shoving each other out of the way to get to the hero.

Craft was leaning back against the concrete wall and smiling his sheepish smile. Reporters horded around him, and Craft — always smart, always crafty, always looking to create space — stuck out his right shoe in order to give himself some breathing room. And always a guy who put winning over his individual exploits, Craft spouted some of those typical team-first sports clichés.

“The ball happened to be in my hands and God put it in,” Craft said.

“All the things that were going on that I don’t normally do, and we’re still in the game, that’s what it’s all about,” he added.

“Got a shot off that felt pretty good. Thought it was in. Knew I was going to have space not to rush it, and it was able to go in,” Craft said.

All things that a father who’d been a high school football and basketball coach was proud to hear.

And then, in the last part of his hallway press conference before he was shuffled away, Craft mentioned this: There wouldn’t be much celebrating Sunday night. He needed to get back to campus. He’s a pre-med student with a near-4.0 GPA, and he had an organic chemistry test Monday that he needed to study for.

And when the father was told this, John Craft beamed, even prouder than when he talked about his son’s 3-pointer that had the perfect arc.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Ohio State, Iowa, Ohio, Iowa State, Aaron Craft

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