BUFFALO, N.Y. — As he entered the First Niagara Center locker room, Aaron Craft paused, hunched over a water cooler and tried to collect himself before greeting the media for the last time after a game as an Ohio State Buckeye.
Turning to answer questions, Craft made it clear — as with every other game in his career — he did all he could to leave it on the floor.
“I tried to,” Craft said. “I tried to.”
For the senior guard from Findlay, Ohio — a three-year starter, two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and three-time Academic All-American — his career was finished in the blink of an eye.
“I loved my time here,” Craft said. “Wouldn’t trade it for anything and obviously this year has been unbelievably up and down and different than any other year that we’ve had. It’s made me a better player and it’s made me a better person.”
Twenty minutes before joining his teammates in the locker room for the last time, Craft had a chance to repeat his magic — and win the game for the Buckeyes.
As time expired, he watched his layup float from his hand, to the backboard, to the front of the rim and, ultimately, out of the basket, ending his tournament, his season and his career.
“(I) just tried to get up the floor as quickly as possible,” Craft said in the postgame press conference. “There’s only four seconds left. That’s kind of how our season’s gone. Thought I got it up there high enough, and I obviously didn’t.”
The 60-59 loss in the second round against Dayton Thursday wasn’t the first close game in the NCAA Tournament Craft had played in his time at OSU. All four of his career NCAA Tournament losses were by less than five points, something Craft said is what hurts the most.
“Lost by nine points total in my four NCAA Tournament losses,” Craft said. “Two points, two points, four points and now one point. So those are all one-possession, two-possession games, and that’s the most frustrating part.”
When coach Thad Matta joined his players in the locker room, he didn’t require the same time to gather himself, but was still left at a loss for words to describe Craft’s career.
“I honestly don’t know. I can never put into words what he’s meant to my life, to my program, to Ohio State. I think without a doubt, he’s going to go down as one of the greatest players to ever wear the Scarlet and Gray. It’s unfortunate that it ends this way, it’s unfortunate for him that he’s not going to a fourth-straight Sweet Sixteen,” Matta said.
But unlike his coach, Craft said it wasn’t the end of a career that hurt the most — but the ending of one last game.
“To be honest, I’m more upset we lost the game,” Craft said. “I’m not upset that I don’t get to play for Ohio State again. I’m upset with the way we lost the game. Angry at myself for letting (Dayton redshirt-senior guard Vee Sanford) get a shot over me to his right hand. I’m upset at myself for not making one more play down the stretch. That’s what I’m upset about because that’s what hurts right now.”
Matta added, though, that were it not for Craft’s ability and tenacity in his career, the Buckeyes would never have achieved such heights.
“I thought he was great,” Matta said. “Just from the standpoint of, we wouldn’t have been in this position had he not been doing the things that he had done to get us here. You look at his career, in my mind, in the 10 years I’ve been at Ohio State, he’s going down as one of the all-time greatest players … Obviously, you don’t like this season to end the way it ends, but just that kid has probably meant more to this program than anybody’s ever meant to this program.”
Craft will go down as one of the most successful Buckeyes in program history, finishing his career as the school’s all-time leader in assists and the conference’s leader in steals.
He was, along with fellow senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., also the fastest player in OSU history to reach the milestone of 100 wins.
Matta said Craft’s ability to affect a game, in particular on defense, was something that will be remembered for a long time.
“He had such an ability over the course of his four years to change the tide of a basketball game,” Matta said. “I think from that perspective, we’ll have to look all (next) season at changing some things, especially on the defensive end … He won 119 games in his career, just short of 30 a year, and so many of those games he won just by being on the defensive end of it.”
But it wasn’t just his on-the-court play where Craft’s influence spread, with both his now-fiancee and roommates becoming minor celebrities in Columbus.
With his career done, though, Craft couldn’t say how it was he wished to be remembered at OSU, adding it was up to others to decide.
“I have zero thoughts on that right now,” Craft said. “I’m upset at the way that we played this game and the way that we didn’t take the opportunity and make the most of it.
“So that’s for you guys to decide and discuss, but right now, I can’t move past this game yet.”
He did say though, he hoped what he’s done in his four years with the Buckeyes has left an impact on the program and the school.
“I’ve been given a phenomenal platform and stage since I’ve been here. The worst thing that I’ve tried to avoid is taking that for granted,” Craft said. “Whether that’s diving on the floor or doing whatever I have to do … it amazes me. There’s so many people that go out there that just love to watch the game and to be able to hear and listen to them talk about they like the way I play, I mean that’s … that’s bigger than me being done. Hopefully that … my short time here has made a difference somewhere.”
But unlike the player himself, there was zero doubt in Matta’s mind about the legacy of Aaron Craft.
“As time marches on, I think that without a doubt, I know this from my perspective, he’s as special as they come.”