BUFFALO, N.Y. — In the 148th and final game of Aaron Craft’s Ohio State career, it felt like fate gave him a swift kick in the rear.
It didn’t. In the absence of a national championship for his team, it was bound to end this way. If the game doesn’t come to Craft, he usually grabs it. He has been in the middle of everything for four years, and he was back there again yesterday, in the vortex of a frenetic NCAA tournament game.
When the Buckeyes were still trying to find that elusive “on” switch in the final 3:33 of a game they were losing to Dayton 51-50, it made sense Craft would score seven points (including a dramatic go-ahead drive with 15.5 seconds left), get a rebound and an assist. And when the Flyers needed a basket from Vee Sanford to win the game with 3.8 seconds remaining, it was almost a given that the Big Ten defensive player of the year would be the one guarding him.
After Sanford made that basket, it seemed inevitable Craft would drive the length of the floor for a shot in the lane that could have won it, and somehow end up feeling the most personal failure when his shot rolled off the rim and sealed a 60-59 loss.
If the Buckeyes couldn’t win all of their tournament games, he would almost certainly have ended his career in a similar situation somewhere because one way or another, he always seemed to have the game in his hands.
“I just wanted to do everything I could to help our team win, and down the stretch, I couldn’t do that today,” Craft said. “I can take blame for that. This is the fourth game-winner hit on me in my time here. I can’t change it. Obviously, you want it to end differently, but these guys still have time.”
Craft is out of time, which is a sad day for basketball junkies who like players willing to take a charge from men with dump-truck bodies or risk life and limb for a loose ball that lies closer to some of his teammates.
When a reporter asked about the end of his career, the 6-foot-2 guard reacted like the guy who always played as if winning a basketball game really meant something.
Everyone should play like that. Few do.
“I’m more upset that we lost the game,” Craft said. “I’m not upset that I’m done. I’m not upset that I don’t get to play at Ohio State again. I’m upset with the way we lost the game. I’m angry with myself for letting him get a shot over me to his right hand. I’m upset with myself for not making one more play down the stretch. That’s why I’m upset. That’s what hurts right now.”
Craft’s failure to stop Sanford hurt him more than his final miss, probably no surprise given that he holds the Big Ten record for career steals.
“My first NCAA loss was on a game-winner in my face, too,” he said, about a shot made by Kentucky’s Brandon Knight, “ so … I don’t know, it’s just frustrating.”
Defense has been Craft’s trademark. His ability to get to the basket and score or dish has produced many dramatic moments. But his hands-in-your-face and frenzied ball-flicking defense could turn a basketball game upside down.
“You look at over the course of his four years how he could change the tide of a basketball game,” coach Thad Matta said. “I always said I would like to play zone some, but I never wanted to because he could win you a game. What’d he win, (118) games in his career? So many of those games he won just by being on the defensive end of it.”
That he couldn’t win his last one would always feel like a gross injustice. That he was in the middle of it all again was just one final testament to who he was as a college basketball player.
“Obviously, you don’t like this season to end the way it ends,” Matta said. “But this kid has probably meant more to this program than anybody ever has. … We wouldn’t be in this position if he hadn’t done the things he had done to get us here. He’s going down as one of the all-time greatest players to ever put on the scarlet and gray.”
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.