Cody Cousino / Multimedia editor
DAYTON – The fate of Ohio State’s season came down to a read – a decision to either put the ball in the hands of its best scorer or leave it with its floor leader and defensive epicenter.
With the ball in his hands and 28 seconds to play, junior guard Aaron Craft hovered footsteps behind the 3-point line and dribbled away precious ticks off the clock while his teammates, namely junior forward Deshaun Thomas, fought frantically to get open.
As cool and collected as one could probably be amid the hurricane that is a last-second finish to an NCAA tournament game – one that would determine whether the No. 2-seeded Buckeyes would reach their fourth-straight Sweet 16 – Craft continued to patiently shift around the top of the key, waiting for someone to get open.
That help, though, never came. At least, not how he wanted it.
So, Craft, known more for his ability to harass the game’s best offensive weapons rather than be one himself, took the game – and OSU’s fate – and hoisted it upon the shoulders of his 6-foot-2, rosy-cheeked frame.
While every bounce of the ball seemed to magnify the general anxiety level of the 13,409 in attendance at the University of Dayton Arena, Craft waved off Thomas’ pining for the ball and watched the clock expire before launching the ball – and the Buckeyes hopes – through the air and into the net with 0.2 seconds left.
The moment – one that will almost certainly echo in years to come – felt paradoxical considering Craft’s play in the game’s final 20 minutes.
The typically clutch point guard turned the ball over three times in the second half, missed four free throws down the game’s stretch and clumsily clanked a mid-range jumper off the iron in the contest’s second-to-last possession.
And for Craft, known more for his ability to slash his way to the basket rather than connect from longer distances, a buzzer beater from behind the arc seemed like it might be even more of an arduous task.
But the Findlay, Ohio, native maintains he kept his poise despite rather atypical struggles late in the game.
“I did some things down the stretch I don’t normally do. Missed some shots and missed some free throws,” he said. “We had confidence in about three of four guys at the end that could take a shot. This game just happened to be me and I was able to knock it down.”
While Craft makes less than 30 percent of his 3-point shots, Lenzelle Smith Jr. said Craft’s basket looked like one from a seasoned-sharpshooter.
“Normally he has a tendency to hitch the ball with the shot, but that one was straight net,” Smith said. “That was bottom of the net.”
And though the shot was executed as intended, that’s hardly the way the Buckeyes drew the play up.
Smith said the plan was to feed it to Thomas, who led all scorers with 22 points in Sunday’s 78-75 win against Iowa State.
“We definitely wanted to have Deshaun in some type of pick and roll. Deshaun was going to be in pick and roll with Aaron, and I was on the strong side with Aaron coming off because we thought that the defender was gonna step up off of Aaron and he would have thrown the ball to Deshaun for a great shot at the top of the key or me in the corner for a good shot,” Smith said.
The Cyclones, though, rotated and switched defenders, confirming Craft’s decision to hold onto the ball.
“Once we seen that they switched, all bets are off,” Smith said. “Aaron, take this guy to the basket and shoot over him.” OSU coach Thad Matta called the instant a “big-time shot by a big-time kid and a big-time player.”
“I saw the same thing Aaron saw. It was right in front of us. (Iowa State) switched it. They made a good read. They set the screen and switched … 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.”
Thanks in part to Craft’s last-second heroics, OSU is set to play No. 6 Arizona at the Staples Center in Los Angeles Thursday night.
“It was a great moment for Craft and for this basketball team,” Smith said. “I’m so happy for him now. He’s on top of the world and hopefully we can keep making those type of plays.”
For the Buckeyes to advance to the Elite 8 and perhaps further, they’ll likely need him to.