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March 24, 2013

Craft overcomes struggles for game-winner

Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

DAYTON, Ohio -- In the final moments of Ohio State's 78-75 win over Iowa State, Aaron Craft did the unthinkable: he waved off Deshaun Thomas.

With the score tied, 29 seconds remaining, and no shot clock to worry about, the Buckeyes point guard held the ball in his hands for what figured to be the final possession of regulation on Sunday. But rather than feed a curling Thomas for a potential game-winning shot against the Cyclones, Craft decided to take matters into his own hands.

"Obviously, D.T.'s going to want the ball in that situation," Craft said. "I felt as if I had a mismatch."

It proved be the right decision.

With just two seconds left in the game, Craft rose up in front of ISU forward Georges Niang, nailing a 3-point shot that was ultimately the difference in Sunday's contest. Craft's game-winner and March Madness moment sent his teammates into a frenzy, and the Buckeyes onto the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles, Calif.

After the game, Craft explained that him taking the shot rather than Thomas was the result of the Buckeyes taking advantage of what the Cyclones were giving them.

"(We) wanted to get (Thomas) open, get him a shot.They switched," Craft said. "I got their biggest guy on me, made a read, and fortunately enough, it went in."

Craft's unforgettable shot came just moments after a series of forgettable plays that the Findlay, Ohio native managed to put behind him.

Holding onto a 10-point lead with 5:35 remaining in the game, Craft committed a turnover that led to a Tyrus McGee layup. That play helped spark a 13-0 Iowa State run that saw Craft miss a layup and the front end of two one-and-one free throw attempts that could've helped keep the Buckeyes' lead at a safe distance from the Cyclones.

"I did some things down the stretch I don't normally do," Craft admitted. "Missed some shots and missed some free throws."

Another Craft turnover, followed by a foul from the OSU point guard, helped give ISU a 73-71 lead with three minutes remaining in the game. Yet despite his struggles, the All-Big Ten selection never shied away from the spotlight.

On the very next play, Craft answered back with an and-1 layup of his own, putting the Buckeyes back on top. One minute later, the 2012 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year split a pair of free throws to re-tie the game, but more than made up for the one that he missed.

With 58 seconds remaining in the game, Cyclones forward Melvin Ejim drove towards the basket and appeared to convert a go-ahead layup. The only problem was that Craft -- a Big Ten All-Defensive team selection in each of the past two seasons -- slid in front of him, drawing a controversial charge call to put the ball back in the Buckeyes' possession.

"I think we know I'm a defensive guy.So I think I'm in the backyard, three, two, one, taking a charge something like that," Craft said with a smile. "Every kid dreams of moments like that."

That play led to Ohio State's final possession, which started with Craft initially missing a jumper with 30 seconds left on the clock. But as the ball sailed out of bounds off of ISU, the Buckeyes found themselves with one last chance to win in regulation.

"I didn't feel nervous," Craft said of the moments before his game-winner. "Just trying to stay as calm and poised as possible, probably a little ‑‑ the moment is definitely bigger than me.As a team, we did a great job down the stretch finding a way to hold on.It just happened to be in my hands at the end of the game."

Fortunately for Ohio State, that's usually the case. Despite his second half struggles, Craft still finished Sunday with 18 points and six assists to his credit. Just like his hitch-filled jump shot, Craft's game might not be the prettiest, but it usually rises to the occasion and will continue to be crucial for his team as the Buckeyes head to Los Angeles.

"We always talk about we play forward," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "I told the guys just relax.We can't change anything that happened in the past. Only thing we can do is play out the last four minutes here and try to win the basketball game.We can't change anything that's happened.

"Aaron, he definitely listens."



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