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Scrappy Craft’s little contributions nearly add up to big win

by Jason Bailey
IU Super Bowl Student News Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — With 1.1 seconds remaining in the first half of Sunday’s Big Ten championship game, an official helped Ohio State sophomore guard Aaron Craft carve out space between two photographers for an inbounds pass. He needed the room for a baseball pass to midcourt. And Craft wasn’t used to being diplomatic.

He spent the rest of the game chopping the ball away from opponents, giving a feisty performance during Sunday’s 68-64 loss to Michigan State. The conference’s defensive player of the year finished with 10 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals, scrapping for key plays that nearly rallied Ohio State to the Big Ten title.

And after watching Michigan State celebrate on the Bankers Life Fieldhouse floor – which helped the Spartans secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, while Ohio State received a No. 2 seed – Craft turned the attention away from disappointment and toward the Buckeyes’ bigger goals.

“I think this weekend went a long way showing how we’ve grown throughout the year,” said Craft, with white tape residue lingering on his right hand in the locker room. “Hopefully we can just continue to be there for one another. Just sacrifice whatever we need to.”

Craft certainly sacrificed his body in the second half on Sunday. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound guard was often the shortest player on the court, but he didn’t hesitate to fling his frame into star Michigan State forward Draymond Green during a fast break. All 6-7, 230 pounds of Green crashed to the floor while Craft passed the ball to sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas, who drained a 3-pointer.

The basket gave Ohio State its largest lead, 52-45, though Michigan State fought back while Green recovered from the collision. It didn’t help that Craft soon joined Green on the sideline.

Craft reluctantly left the court after two consecutive defensive fouls — his third and fourth — with about 10 minutes remaining. He stood in front of the Ohio State bench for several unfamiliar seconds after playing all 80 minutes against Michigan State during the regular season.

“It’s a little frustrating, but you have to find a way to do it,” said Craft, who let out a sigh at the thought of having to play less aggressively. “It’s tough not being able to pressure them up top against their guards. Allow them to throw easier passes into the post. But you just got to live with it.”

Before finding himself in danger of fouling out, Craft’s quick hands made the difference. Steals on consecutive possessions led to Ohio State’s first lead of the game, 8-7, after Craft violently slapped the ball away and senior guard William Buford finished with a fast-break slam.

His suffocating man-to-man defense on the Spartans’ second-leading scorer, Keith Appling, forced Michigan State to turn to senior guard Brandon Wood, who ended up having the best game of his Big Ten career. The transfer from Valparaiso scored 21 points and finished 4 of 8 on 3-point attempts. Craft’s second foul came after sprinting between opposite corners of the court, sending Wood to the floor on a fast break.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta noted that Craft also provided interior help defense when Michigan State ran its offense through Green, who finished with 12 points on 4-of-15 shooting. But he was also savvy on offense when going up against that beefy frontcourt, responding with crossover dribbles to create space before angling his body toward the backboard to shield his shot from larger defenders. He scored all 10 points on layups.

And after spending four minutes on the bench in the second half, Craft kept the Buckeyes alive late.

When Green hit a contested 3-pointer that gave Michigan State a 67-62 lead, he might have sealed his selection as the tournament’s most outstanding player. Craft responded, however, by grabbing an offensive rebound and hitting a spinning layup with his left hand in the final minute. And when Ohio State, trailing by four in the final seconds, was scrambling for a miracle, Craft was still scrapping for a loose ball and a last chance after a missed 3-pointer when the ball slipped out of his hands and out of bounds, ending Ohio State’s hopes.

With his cheeks flushed almost as red as his jersey, Craft finally stopped trying to defend.

“I don’t think there’s any such thing as a good loss anytime,” Craft said. “It happens, and we have to learn from it. We can’t put our heads down and just expect this to go away.”

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