COLUMBUS — It was the signature win Ohio State so badly needed heading into the Big Ten tournament.
And it will be remembered for the signature play that helped secure it.
Really, should, would, or could Senior Day at OSU end any more appropriately than with Aaron Craft diving to the floor, bloodying his elbow, and stealing a loose-ball rebound with just 24.8 seconds left in a one-point game?
That play, coupled with some impressive defense by the Buckeyes down the stretch, produced a 69-67 win over Michigan State at the Schottenstein Center.
“Poetic justice, I guess,” said MSU coach Tom Izzo. “That’s kind of his style.”
Craft is the constant pest that opponents and opposing fans hate. His calling card is blood, sweat, steals, assists, and all those hustle plays that can turn a game.
This was one of the latter for the 6-foot-2 sparkplug from Findlay and Liberty-Benton High.
Adreian Payne of the Spartans, 6-10 in his stocking feet, but owner of a deft touch from the perimeter, tried to notch his fourth 3-pointer of the game with the Buckeyes leading 68-67, but Sam Thompson flew at him from the side and slightly altered the attempt.
The rebound glanced long and was up for grabs until Craft dived and slid on the floor to wrap it up while an OSU teammate signaled for a timeout.
“We went over that play in our shoot-around,” Thompson said. “I just wanted to get out and contest it, then Craft made a great play to get the ball.”
This is an Ohio State team with eight Big Ten losses, a few of them head-scratchers, including the previous two games against Penn State and Indiana.
“Down the stretch this year, we haven’t found ways to make those plays,” Craft said. “So I had to make that one for the team.”
It was about the zillionth of his career, but the last piece of drama at the Schott, and the one everyone will remember unless he can come up with something better down the tournament trail.
OSU coach Thad Matta laughed when asked about the play, which Craft soon after followed with a made free throw for the final score.
“As only Aaron Craft can do, he ran over [to the huddle] and asked why I called time,” Matta said. “He knew if it was a tied ball it would have been our possession. So why call time? Sam looked at him and told him he called it. But that’s Aaron. He’s aware of everything.
“It was just a big-time play. I would say that would probably be a fitting end to his career [in this building.] I don’t know what could describe his career any better than that.”
If not that, there was this: Late in a back-and-forth first half, one of Craft’s four steals in the game made him the all-time Big Ten leader in that statistical category.
An interviewer asked him about the record after the game.
“Huh?” he said. “What was that again?”
The question was repeated.
“Oh, all right … feels good,” Craft said, before lowering his voice and adding, “I honestly thought I had it already.”
Well, yeah, you’d have thought so. For the record he now has 328 steals to go along with 673 assists.
And if neither of the aforementioned plays fully describes Craft’s career, then there was this:
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, leading by two, Craft was glued to MSU’s Gary Harris, who had the ball for the Spartans’ final shot at the buzzer.
“He’s a taller guy, so I just wanted to contest the shot as best I could,” Craft said.
And, of course, he did. And, to cap the perfect home finale, the ball glanced off the rim harmlessly.
Craft has scored 1,267 career points. Nobody keeps statistics like this, but would it be foolish to suggest he has prevented a similar number of points?
“It has been an honor to coach against him for four years,” MSU’s Izzo said. “He stands for everything right.”
Craft might appreciate that comment, but he insists he is “not worried about how I’m going to be remembered. It’s all about moving forward. Hopefully, we can build on the momentum from this game. Because defense, hustle plays, that has to be our calling card.”
Such was the case Sunday … a signature win built by a signature play.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.
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