It seems as though Aaron Craft has spent at least 10 percent of his Ohio State career with his compact body propelled like a basketball-seeking missile in a headlong dive to the sideline, toward a tangled pile of bodies or to the floor.
OK, here’s the setup: It’s the last home game of Craft’s college career, and his Buckeyes are in danger of losing.
Could we have a scriptwriter please?
Michigan State’s Adreian Payne missed a three-point attempt with 29 seconds left that would have given the Spartans a two-point lead. The ball landed not far from Payne, and several feet and one long dive from the ever-alert Craft.
So the 6-foot-2 senior dived. He dived like a safety who sees a fumbled football lying a few feet from the end zone in the Super Bowl, or like a basketball player who wears his floor burns as proudly as some rappers wear their tattoos.
“You’ve got to love Craft,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I do. It was an honor to coach against him for four years. … He struggled a little bit this year because of a lot of different reasons, but he made some big plays and had a very good game on senior night, (the way) a kid like that deserves to. That was kind of his staple. So probably the poetic justice way to end the game was the way he did it, and I give him a lot of credit for that.”
This came from an Izzo who was fuming after the game, unhappy with the officiating and with the way his team played in its 69-67 loss to Ohio State. But he let his anger cool long enough to compliment Craft and senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. — “Those two guys are all that’s right about college basketball, they’re great kids” — and what he said about Craft’s dive to the floor was dead-on. It was fitting that Craft would close out his home career by pouncing on a basketball that might have been scooped up by Payne and turned into a Spartans victory.
OSU coach Thad Matta laughed about it, because five seconds later Craft had forgotten about what he had done.
“As only Aaron Craft can do, he comes over and says ‘Why did you call time out? It was a possession. We didn’t have to waste the time out,’ ” a grinning Matta said. “I said, ‘I didn’t call the timeout.’ Sam Thompson chimes in and says ‘I called the time out.’ It was a big-time play, but for him to have that awareness and challenge my coaching intellect … ”
There was a lot of what Craft does — and what this team has to do to be successful — condensed in the final minutes of this game, and in that one play in particular. It has been obvious most of the season that this offensively challenged team gets most of its offense from its defense, and when its defense is good, so are the Buckeyes.
Thompson closed fast on Payne as he prepared to shoot, causing him to alter his shot. The Spartans’ 6-foot-10 senior was 3 of 5 from beyond the arc before the miss.
“Sam did a great job of contesting it,” Craft said. “We thought we knew what play they were going to run, and he made a good play on it. Down the stretch this year, we haven’t found ways to make plays like that. And at that moment, that was what I had to do for our team.”
Craft was fouled on the ensuing possession and made 1 of 2 free throws, then was back playing tight defense at the other end when Denzel Valentine lost control of the ball while trying to drive the lane against him. Just knowing that the ball-flicking Craft is there can sometimes cause havoc; his four steals yesterday made him the Big Ten’s career leader.
It’s the dive that will be remembered, though
“I would say that would probably be the most fitting end to an Ohio State guy’s career, in his last home game to make that play,” Matta said. “Just his awareness. He was in timeouts and he was saying ‘We’re not losing, we’re not losing, we’ve got to make plays.’ And for him to come up with that, I don’t know if you could describe his career any better than that.”
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.