It was the opener to the wall of games yesterday afternoon. In the in-state matchup that doesn’t happen very often, “little brother” Dayton had nothing to lose against the Buckeyes, and they played like it. The Ohio State Buckeyes showed their warts as they have all season long, and they went down just as they have in nearly every loss this season, looking like a team without a leading scorer. Former Buckeye Jordan Sibert and the Flyers provided the first upset of the tourney with a 60-59 stunner as Vee Sanford provided the game-winner with 3.8 seconds remaining, sandwiched between would-be game-winners from Buckeye heart and soul Aaron Craft. One unbelievable make and one heart-wrenching miss. The Buckeyes end the season 25-10, a far cry from many of the early season expectations. Now, they have to say goodbye to one of the most polarizing figures to don the scarlet and gray in the last half century.
The same things that plagued Ohio State all season long manifested again today: their lack of consistent play from the center position, the uneven shooting of their two leading scorers LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith Jr., the lack of outside shooting from Shannon Scott, and turnovers. But, the things that kept giving you hope all season long that they could turn it around were on display too: a surprise performance from one of those inconsistent players (Sam Thompson), clutch and gritty play from Aaron Craft, and tenacious defense that racked up stop after stop after stop.
Ohio State jumped out to an early 5-0 before a 10-2 Dayton run allowed the Flyers to hold the lead for a good chunk of the first half. Dayton beat the Buckeyes down the court in transition several times, and Ohio State didn’t help their own cause much as they missed a few easy shots inside. Dayton’s starting frontcourt, far from its strength, outscored OSU’s 16-4 on a lot of easy buckets inside. Ohio State also was behind 6-5 in the turnover battle with the Flyers being a turnover prone team. Dayton hit some shots, and the Bucks weren’t imposing their will on defense as they normally do. Despite just eight points from their two leading scorers, the Bucks trailed Dayton by just three at the half. It was largely due to the offensive output from Craft and Thompson, who combined for 17 on 6-of-7 shooting.
In that second half, however, Ohio State found its defensive harmony again. First, they fell behind by eight points with 13:37 to play, but a 10-0 run which included three straight thunderous buckets from Thompson saw the scarlet and gray take the lead again behind the small ball lineup where they ditched Williams at the 5 and went with Thompson and Ross primarily down low. In fact, 13 of the 20 minutes in the second half saw neither Amir nor Trey McDonald in the game. The two would fail to rack up a single point and just 8 rebounds in 27 minutes. Ohio State as a team had only 3 offensive boards and 4 second chance points, and those two were a glaring reason why. Thompson flashed some of the brilliance from Ohio State’s late season run one year ago that had Buckeye fans so hopeful for another step forward this season. He was aggressive and confident on more than just rim rattlers. Let’s hope he CAN take those steps forward in his final campaign, unlike Lenzelle Smith Jr., who fizzled all season long.
It was the lack of aggressiveness and shots from Ross (5-of-12 for 10 points) and Smith (3-for-7 for 6 points) that necessitated Craft attack the bucket. After starting the game incredibly timid, the senior point kicked it in gear, finishing a number of high-degree of difficulty shots in the waning moments of the game. With the two top scorers failing to make it to the charity stripe, it was Craft who took 5 of the team’s 12 attempts. Craft scored 7 of OSU’s final 9 points over the final four minute stretch of the game, and he assisted on the other bucket courtesy of Thompson as he drove baseline and kicked underneath the hoop to a curling Sam for a short hook. Craft finished with 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting along with 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals. He hit what could have very well been the game winner with 17 seconds remaining as he went up and under, crashing to the deck.
Ohio State hung its hat on the defensive end all season long, and rightfully so. But, when they needed that one more stop to survive and advance, they couldn’t get it. As Sanford drove to the deck down the right side, Craft stayed within range, swiping at the ball as he picked up his handle to shoot. The high-arcing shot rattled home, and Craft’s mad dash up the court and inside the arc with 3.8 seconds remaining was all for naught with the ball hitting the crotch of the rim and rolling off the front of the rim. Of that final shot, Craft said, “That’s kind of how our season’s gone. I thought I got it up high enough there and obviously didn’t.” Craft instead focused more on that last defensive possession. “It was 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. It’s amazing that defense has always been my thing, and that’s how it’s going to end with a kid hitting a game-winner on me.” Those four game-winners he speaks of, for the record, include Brandon Knight’s shot for Kentucky in the Sweet 16 in 2011 when Ohio State was the top tournament seed and Penn State’s D.J. Newbill this season in Columbus. Thad Matta had this to add about his program cornerstone, “That kid’s probably meant more to this program than anyone’s meant to this program.”
So, what now? This was a really hard team to love all season long. In many ways, it makes me sad that Craft’s senior campaign ended like this after the much deeper runs of his first three seasons in uniform. In many ways, I think Thad Matta took this island of misfit roleplayers as far as he could and he should be commended for squeezing this many wins out of this squad. In other ways, I felt that Thad should’ve accepted his team’s shortcomings and given players like Marc Loving, Amadeo Della Valle, and Trey McDonald more playing time off the bench for the betterment of the future installments of OSU hoops. The future should be much brighter with the trio of Top 30 recruits coming to Columbus in D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop, and Jae’Sean Tate along with the potential add of a graduate transfer like Temple’s Anthony Lee, who talked to Matta today reportedly. Still, that 2011 recruiting class of Shannon Scott, LaQuinton Ross, Amir Williams, Sam Thompson, and Trey McDonald that has drastically underwhelmed since setting foot on campus will be seniors and a large part of the team’s success or failure next season. Someone will have to step up into a leadership role, and many of these guys don’t seem to have the internal drive that a guy like Craft, Ron Lewis, Jamar Butler, or David Lighty had to lead a team.
Hopefully, the end of Craft’s time at OSU is a wake up call and a call to action for this unimpressive bunch. It should be a reminder of how short a college career is, and it should stress how important it is to play with a high motor and sense of urgency. The talent for next year’s team could largely come from Loving, Kameron Williams (who redshirted this season), and the three newcomers, but those five soon-to-be seniors will need to take a big step forward if Ohio State wants to make another Sunday trip to the Big Ten final and start another Sweet 16 streak.