Bob Hunter commentary: Craft not one to be down for too long

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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DAYTON — Aaron Craft has never been a good fit to play the role of goat. It would be like casting John Wayne to star in Pee-wee Herman’s life story.

The game often finds the ball-hawking Ohio State guard, and when it doesn’t, he often brings it to him. You don’t have to pay close attention to know it usually ends well: Counting the 78-75 win over Iowa State yesterday, the Buckeyes are 93-18 during Craft’s three-year career. But this was one of those rare days when destiny came calling and Craft’s response was very un-Craft-like, which made for an amazing story.

Ohio State was leading 69-56 entering the last six minutes, with a fourth straight trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament on the line, and Craft suddenly seemed to be on the wrong side of everything.

He turned the ball over. He missed a layup. He missed the front ends of a pair of one-and-one free-throw situations. He committed another turnover, committed a foul and finally was fouled while making a layup with 2:37 left. He made this free throw — to give Ohio State a 74-73 lead.

“I would have felt pretty bad if we had ended up losing that game,” Craft said. “These guys have worked very hard, and for me to have some turnovers and miss free throws like that, it’s definitely not fair to them.”

It was suddenly easy to recognize Craft again. With the Cyclones leading 75-74, he served as roadkill on Will Clyburn’s charge, then made one of two free throws with 1:15 left to tie the score and reset his date with destiny.

“I just tried to do the best job I could of moving on to the next play,” Craft said. “I tried to stay poised and focused. All the things that were going on that I don’t normally do, we were still in the game. ”

There was no predicting how this would turn out. Craft missed a 16-footer with 29.9 seconds left, but an Iowa State player knocked the rebound out of bounds. With the score tied and the shot clock turned off, this figured to be a last shot to win — for All-American Deshaun Thomas.

After a timeout, the ball was inbounded to Craft, and guard Bubu Palo stayed with him as he dribbled away the time behind the arc. When the clock reached six seconds, LaQuinton Ross stepped out to set a screen. Palo got caught in a switch, and Craft suddenly found himself being guarded by center Georges Niang. He waved off the waiting Thomas and, with two seconds left, launched a perfect three-pointer that will be long remembered by Ohio State fans.

The goat — and it’s hard to use that term for a player who has won about a bazillion games by playing defense at the speed of a top-fuel dragster — was again the hero.

Although Craft admitted that his uncharacteristic play bothered him, he said the wave-off and the shot that followed were all about the mismatch with Niang.

“Obviously (Thomas) is going to want the ball in that situation, but I had a mismatch,” Craft said. “The possession before, I had the same mismatch and got a shot off that felt pretty good, that I thought was in. I knew I was going to have space and didn’t have to rush it.”Craft is better suited for the role of humble hero; questions about this being a shot for the ages seemed to make him a little uncomfortable. When asked whether what he had done had “sunk in yet,” he answered with a sheepish smile.

“A little bit, but to be honest, I’m really thinking more about the mistakes I was making,” he said. “And I’ve got a test tomorrow in organic chemistry. … I’ve got a lot of things going on.”

One of those things isn’t a make-up with Thomas for not feeding him the ball as expected.

“I know when he came and said ‘I love you’ — that made the wave-off OK,” Craft said.

Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.

bhunter@dispatch.com

@dailyhunter

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