Michael Periatt / Asst. sports editor
PITTSBURGH – It was a good time for Ohio State sophomore guard Aaron Craft to channel a career-high performance.
Craft notched his first career double-double, scoring 17 points and adding 10 assists in No. 2-seeded OSU’s 73-66 win over No. 7-seeded Gonzaga in the third round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday in Pittsburgh’s CONSOL Energy Center.
Craft’s 17 points came on 7-of-9 shooting. He also nabbed three steals to bring his season total to 88, which tied Mike Conley Jr.’s single-season record he set in 2006-07.
Craft said he found success by finding holes in Gonzaga’s defense.
“Tonight there were some open lanes,” Craft said. “I found some. Did a good job of getting in and letting teammates make enough plays, as well.”
Craft’s first bucket in the game came with 13:44 to go in the first half, when he knocked down a 3-pointer to tie the game at 12. He made another mid-range jumper about two minutes later.
Craft said those early buckets helped his confidence, especially with the Bulldogs’ defense honing in on sophomore forwards Deshaun Thomas and Jared Sullinger.
“It always helps when you make your first couple baskets,” he said. “They did a good job focusing on Jared and focusing on the other guys that just kept me a little open. Fortunately, I knocked a couple down.”
Sullinger started off hot himself, knocking down two-straight 3-pointers to open the game for the Buckeyes. However, he was forced to sit for much of the first half with foul trouble.
Craft and the rest of the Buckeyes struggled in the first half to keep pace with Gonzaga. The Buckeyes were down as much as seven in the first half, but Craft made another jumper with five seconds left to give OSU a 39-37 lead heading into the locker room.
Craft then rattled off seven-straight points for the Buckeyes to start the second half.
OSU coach Thad Matta said Craft was not only a force on offense, but, as usual, on defense as well.
“I think his play, especially how he opened up the second half, got inside the defense, finished,” Matta said. “Defensively, he’s the best defender in college. There’s nobody better than him in college basketball.”
His teammates were equally impressed.
“I think (Gonzaga) wanted Aaron to score the basketball,” Sullinger said. “Everybody doesn’t understand that Aaron is a scorer, but he passes first with this basketball team.”
Senior guard William Buford, who added 13 points of his own, said it’s hard to stop Craft when he’s being aggressive.
“Craft was aggressive, and when he’s in his mode, it’s hard to stop him,” Buford said. “He was getting to the rim, creating for himself and others. He had 10 assists, too, so it’s a tremendous game.”
The Bulldogs switched to a zone defense in the second half, which stifled the Buckeyes’ offense and trimmed what was a 10-point lead, in the span of five minutes, to a tie at 61 with 4:03 to go.
Craft didn’t score again after completing a three-point play with 15:54 left in the game.
OSU, however, hung on.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few said focusing on Sullinger and Thomas early may have doomed the Bulldogs.
“Then we lost Craft,” Few said. “We didn’t stick with our ball screen coverage. Lost him twice. He was able to get some lay-ins on us, both at the end of the half and at the start of the second half.”
OSU is set to play the winner of Sunday’s No. 3-seeded Florida State and No. 6-seeded Cincinnati matchup in the Sweet 16 Thursday in Boston.