Ohio State guard Aaron Craft is a 3.89 student who’s majoring in premed, as well as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
So he was able to figure out the angle to intentionally miss a free throw with 2.9 seconds left, have it ricochet off the rim and into his hands so he could try a game-tying shot in Saturday night’s national semifinal against Kansas.
The ball indeed came back to Craft, but he was whistled for entering the lane before the ball hit the rim. And that was it. Kansas won 64-62 in front of 73,361 in the Superdome.
“I went over the line early apparently,” Craft said in the Ohio State locker room. “You’ve got to live with it. We needed to miss it, and instead of trying to let the big guys try to get a rebound, I figured that would be easiest for me to try and get it, and so I left a little too soon.”
Craft said he was surprised by the call.
“But they’ve called it all tournament with guys going in early,” Craft said. “It’s not about that one call; that’s not what lost us the game. It’s them being a great team, and they deserved it.”
Ohio State, 31-8, lost the game because of wretched second-half shooting. The Buckeyes led 34-25 at halftime but missed their first 10 shots of the second half and hit only four of their first 20. Still, Ohio State led 55-49 with 5:22 before the Jayhawks went ahead 60-59 on two free throws by Travis Releford with 1:37 to play.
“They’re a great team,” Craft said. “They’re going to make a run. They did. We weren’t able to weather it like we have before. We did a good job in transition for the most part, but they got out toward the end, and that’s how they won the last few games, getting out at the end and getting easy buckets. They turned up the defensive intensity, and we couldn’t handle it.”
Ohio State trailed 62-59 with 17 seconds left when Deshaun Thomas missed a three pointer, collected the rebound and rushed another three-pointer that missed. Teammate William Buford grabbed the rebound and slammed home a dunk with 9 seconds left, cutting the KU lead to 62-61.
Thomas and fellow forward Jared Sullinger combined to make just eight of 33 shots in the game. Sullinger, the Buckeyes’ sophomore All-American, was five of 19 and scored 13 points, nearly five points below his season average; Thomas, the team’s second-leading scorer (16.1 points per game), managed just nine points.
Kansas effectively double-teamed Sullinger, trapping him with nowhere to go on several occasions.
“I wasn’t expecting Kansas to double,” Sullinger said. “There were a couple of times it caught me off-guard. We had a chance to control that game, and we slipped on the opportunity. They wanted it more at the end. They started to convert when we could not convert. When they saw blood, they attacked us, and we were not able to pick it up.”
Ohio State coach Thad Matta couldn’t explain how a team that made 12 of 26 shots in the first half could make just eight of 33 in the second half.
“A lot of it was who we were playing,” Matta said. “Give Kansas credit. They were fighting for their lives. Their season was on the line. The biggest thing for us tonight was our inability to make shots in the second half. Deshaun only playing 23 minutes (because of foul trouble) hurt us, because they were able to sit (Jeff) Withey down there and allowed him to double team.
“That was probably the biggest advantage they had on us. Our inability to put the ball in the basket was something that enabled them to gather momentum and get themselves going.”
The loss was especially painful to Sullinger, who decided last spring against coming out for the NBA draft for a chance to lead Ohio State to a national championship.
“It hurts,” Sullinger. “But if you looked at this team a month ago, people said we weren’t good enough to get here. So I’m proud of these guys.”