Michael Parkman / Lantern photographer
When he met with the media Friday, Ohio State freshman Aaron Craft was asked what his role was on a team that includes four returning starters, as well as a bevy of other talented freshmen like himself.
“I knew coming in that I would have great people around me, so I knew I wouldn’t have to do too much or anything too special,” Craft told the media. “Kind of just basic things, take care of the ball and play defense. It doesn’t take too much thought for that, so I just go out there and play my role the best I can.”
If you ask Penn State, the young point guard vastly undersold himself.
Craft — who scored 19 points and handed out seven assists in his 35 minutes off the bench — led the Buckeyes to a 69-66 win over PSU tonight.
“Craft stepped up and hit some big shots,” PSU coach Ed DeChellis said. “You have to pick your poison. I knew (Jon) Diebler could make shots, (William) Buford can make shots and (David) Lighty can make shots, but we thought, ‘Hey, let’s dig off of him and let him make some shots,’ and he did.”
Craft said he knew he had to take advantage of the open looks the Nittany Lions allowed him to have.
“I just can’t be out there passing the ball around because then they can just take me and just double Jared (Sullinger), and that just kind of makes the court that much smaller for everyone else out there,” Craft said. “Obviously I felt comfortable. My teammates have confidence in me; Jared has confidence in me to pass me the ball all those times, so it was just a good all-around team win today.”
On the shoulders of senior David Jackson’s 12 first-half points, PSU led during most of the first 20 minutes. The Nittany Lions led by as many as five early on, but a basket from Craft, who led the Buckeyes with 11 first-half points, tied the game at 30 with two and a half minutes left in the half. The teams entered halftime tied at 32.
“We just really didn’t come out with the energy that we needed,” Diebler said. “They were shooting 60 percent at halftime, and that’s not something we do defensively. You have to give them credit, but I think in the second half we turned up our intensity a little bit.”
Back-to-back threes from junior William Buford and Diebler to start the second half gave the Buckeyes a six-point lead and forced DeChellis to call a quick timeout. After a PSU basket, a 3-pointer from Craft and a three-point play from freshman Jared Sullinger completed a 12-2 OSU run, putting the Buckeyes up by 10.
But as has been the running theme for OSU over the last several games, its opponent mounted a comeback. A basket from PSU’s Andrew Jones cut the OSU lead to just two with less than six minutes remaining. Three minutes later, Jackson made both ends of a one-and-one, and senior Talor Battle got a steal and a layup to give PSU a one-point lead with less than three minutes to go.
Buford responded on the ensuing possession with a 3-pointer to recapture the lead for OSU. Craft then drew an offensive foul on Battle, but Sullinger committed one of his own at the other end and PSU had the ball, down two with a minute and a half remaining. A Craft foul gave Battle two free throws, which he made, and the game was tied again with 1:12 to go.
With the clock running under a minute, the Buckeyes went right to Sullinger inside. A three-point play from the big man gave OSU the lead. But after Battle put up an air ball at the other end, a Jackson three-point play tied the game yet again, this time with just 43 seconds remaining.
Just as they had done on the previous possession, OSU went right to Sullinger, who again provided the Buckeyes with a three-point play and a last-minute lead. During a timeout before the game’s final play, OSU coach Thad Matta said he initially considered fouling in order to prevent the Nittany Lions from getting off a potential game-tying 3-pointer. Eventually, however, Matta decided against it.
“I just figured at some point we had to get a stop,” Matta said. “We had talked about fouling during the timeout, and I had actually drawn up where we wanted to foul.
“But then I just said, ‘Screw it. We’re going to guard.'”
Craft contested a Battle 3-pointer that came up well short as time expired.
“We knew they needed a three and we did a good job of having them run down the clock,” Craft said. “It just came down to me. I didn’t get hand on the ball at all; he missed it.”
Sullinger finished the game with 19 points and a team-high six rebounds. Craft’s 19 points were the most of his career. More importantly, however, was the poise that both freshmen played with, despite the game being close throughout.
“Aaron today was just really, really special and effective on both sides of the basketball,” Matta said. “He and Jared didn’t play like freshmen today; that’s for sure.”