BUFFALO, N.Y. – Aaron Craft grabbed a Gatorade and slunk into his locker, staring off into the distance trying to process the finality of his career. An hour earlier, he lay on the court in the First Niagara Center with a dazed look on his face.
It was Craft who made what appeared to be the game-winning basket in a back-and-forth affair with in-state foe Dayton. But the Flyers denied him the storybook sendoff and NCAA Tournament heroism.
Vee Sanford connected on a floater over Craft with 3.8 seconds remaining. The four seconds that followed were frantic but played out in slow motion, as if Craft’s four-year odyssey flashed before his eyes. A desperation runner bounced off the rim as time expired.
When Craft fell to the floor, he gazed to the heavens with tears in his eyes oblivious to the euphoric celebration occurring behind him. The long walk to the locker room came with Craft’s jersey pulled over his face and assistant coach and close friend Greg Paulus consoling him.
“I have loved my time here, and I wouldn't trade it for anything,” Craft said.
It’s the end of an era for Ohio State. And in a way, college basketball. There aren’t many Aaron Crafts in the world – high-caliber players who embody everything it means to be a student-athlete. It’s what endeared him to Buckeye fans and made him Public Enemy No. 1 for opponents.
Craft is the ultimate defender, the ultimate hustler, an energizer bunny in scarlet and gray. He’s undersized and not supremely athletic, but equipped with a larger-than-life persona not unlike Tim Tebow. Craft won on heart, determination and grit. He expended every ounce of verve.
Football has long been the dominant sport in Ohio. Drive through the state in autumn and chances are you’ll see boys playing football amongst the fallen leaves emulating Ohio State’s quarterback. Craft has since made taking charges, diving for loose balls and being modest cool.
“Honestly, those things are way bigger than what is going on in the locker room right now,” Craft said. “I’ve been given a phenomenal platform and stage since I have been here. The worst thing I’ve tried to avoid is taking that for granted. Whether that is diving on the floor or doing whatever I have to do, it amazes me.
“There are so many people out there that just love to watch the game and to be able to hear them talk and like the way that I play, that is bigger than me being done. Hopefully my short time here has made a difference somewhere.”
The rosy-cheeked one, a three-time Academic All-American, will be remembered for decades. Maybe not for his offense, unless it’s for facilitating during his first three seasons. Or hitting a game-winning three-pointer against Iowa State in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
Winning has been in Craft’s DNA since a standout high school career at Findlay Liberty-Benton. The constant throughout his career was a defensive style that verged on hostile. He harassed opponents and didn’t shy away from putting his body through pain. But in humble fashion, he’ll point out the flaws.
“My first NCAA loss was on a game-winner in my face, too. It’s just frustrating,” Craft said, referencing Brandon Knight’s jumper to lift Kentucky past Ohio State in 2011.
Three years later, a similar scene played out. Only this time, it marked the end of an unforgettable career.
“This is going to hurt,” Craft said.
The grieving process began Thursday afternoon. So, what does the future hold for Aaron Craft? It remains a mystery at this point. The NBA, no matter what Craft’s cynics say, is a realistic possibility. He’s been projected as a second-round pick and scouts point to Craft’s game-changing defensive skills as reason for his place in the NBA.
Craft has indicated he wishes to pursue the NBA and if it doesn’t work out, he’ll enroll in medical school. But the future wasn’t part of his thought process following Thursday’s loss. The moment was still too foggy.
“I haven no idea. Before I can think about doing anything else, I need to deal with this and get myself in the right mindset,” Craft said. “I have to move on from this first.”
As time passes – days, months and years – a legacy that’s already fully bloomed will become crystalized.
“You look at his career, in my mind, he’s going down as one of the all‑time greatest players to ever put on the scarlet and gray,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. “Obviously, you don’t like this season to end the way it ends. But that kid has probably meant more to this program than anybody’s ever meant to this program.