The Shot: Aaron Craft's Heroics Save Ohio State's Season

By Kyle Rowland on March 25, 2013 at 10:00a
Aaron Craft's dagger won the game against Iowa State

The defining moment of Aaron Craft’s career took place on Sunday in Dayton, Ohio. It wasn’t a dive on the floor or a steal that resulted in an Ohio State layup. No, Aaron Craft, Mr. Defense, hit a shot that saved Ohio State’s season and will place him in Buckeye lore for eternity.

That it was Craft who converted such a monumental basket – a 3 no less – is surprising. But his boneheaded plays and horrific free throw shooting added to the shock value.

Craft had two turnovers and made only 2 of 5 free throw attempts at a critical juncture down the stretch. Dating to an uber-successful high school career, the Findlay, Ohio, native has prided himself on smart play and a penchant for winning. But suddenly he looked vulnerable like no other point in his career.

It got so bad that even Craft’s kid sister, Cait, a member of the Ohio State women’s basketball team, chimed in on Twitter. “Alright Aaron, some free throws would be nice.”

“My teammates did a great job staying encouraging,” Craft said. “Whatever was going on, we were still in the game.”

The redemption was that much sweeter. As far as game-winning shots go, Craft’s wasn’t spectacular in the sense that he eluded pressure or made an acrobatic play. It was dribbles and a three-pointer. Add in the fact that he waved off the Big Ten’s leading scorer and Ohio State’s only true offensive scoring threat in Deshaun Thomas, who already had 22 points, and you have a story.

“Freshman year, I probably would have gotten mad. Last year, I probably would have gotten mad. This is just me growing up,” Thomas said. “I believe in him. I just let him go to work.”

Said Craft: “He came over and said I love you and hugged me. That made the wave-off OK. That was after the game ended. Before, he was kind of angry.”

That last statement was said tongue-in-cheek with a smile attached to Craft’s face. He might be the ultimate villain to opponents, but it’s hard not to admire Craft’s effort and determination.

His grittiness led to arguably the second biggest play of the game, drawing a charge with 1:41 left that later became the source of controversy.

“We know I'm a defensive guy,” Craft said. "So I think I’m in the backyard … 3 … 2 … 1 … taking a charge.”

Having frittered away a 13-point lead in less than two minutes, Ohio State found itself trailing by a point when Iowa State’s Will Clyburn drove to the basket and dropped in a layup.

The whistle blew and most of the 13,000 in attendance believed it was a block, count the basket and-1. The officials called a charge, though, giving the Buckeyes new life. Instead of being down three with a free throw pending, the margin remained one point.

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

“That’s the competitor in Craft and our whole team,” Thomas said. “We feed off that.”

The amount of attention spent on whether it was a charge or a block was unjust. In basketball, 50/50 calls are part of the game. A little more than a month ago, Craft was on the other side of a 50/50 call, when he was hacked by Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr. on a last-second shot.  

“That’s the competitor in Craft and our whole team,” Thomas said. “We feed off that.”

On Sunday, Craft made sure he didn’t need to get a foul call on a buzzer-beater, choosing to settle for a 3. On the previous possession, Craft noticed Georges Niang gave him space to shoot, so he figured it’d happen again. Sure enough, Niang sagged back as to not allow Craft a clear path to the basket.

Big mistake. Craft doesn’t let slip-ups fester inside. It’s always on to the next play.

“He’s special,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said.

Craft has the ability to get his coach and teammates to say extraordinary things about him. He’s the ultimate team player, deflecting praise at every turn. Even in the aftermath of a bold move that resulted in March’s signature moment, Craft was engrossed in the what-ifs.

“I was going to feel pretty bad if we ended up losing that game,” he said. “These guys have worked very hard, and for me to have some turnovers and miss free throws, that definitely wasn’t fair to them. I was as relaxed as I could be and was able to knock down a shot for us.”

Usually seen moving about the court like a waterbug pickpocketing opposing guards, Craft this time improvised and called his own number on offense. It’d be a show of selfishness for most players, but not when it’s the consummate teammate.

When the ball went through the hoop, 12 Buckeyes came running at Craft. He remained stoic and expressionless, barking defensive orders. After all, 0.5 seconds still remained on the clock.

It was only after Korie Lucious’ desperation attempt fell well short that Craft flashed a smile and glad-handed teammates.

“I saw him when he released it,” Thomas said. “I knew it was in. The one thing he did when he made it, he didn’t celebrate. He said, ‘Let’s play D!’ That’s what is so good about him.”

The uncharacteristic series of events by Craft seemed to match up with the theme of the West Region. The first three days of the tournament were marked by the region crumbling in dramatic fashion. Seeds No. 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7 were all sent home much earlier than anticipated.

The No. 2 seed giving up a double-digit lead and an All-Big Ten player performing like a walk-on fit the script. But Ohio State had a Hollywood ending of its own.
“I guess those free throws are forgiven,” Cait tweeted.

“Hopefully we don’t have to do it again,” Aaron said.

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