INDIANAPOLIS — If there was ever was an image that did not fit, it was Aaron Craft fumbling the buzzer-beating shot in Ohio State’s 72-69 loss to Michigan on Saturday.
"It just slipped out of my hands," he said.
The Ohio State guard has always laid claim to the Big Ten tournament — and, really, this time of year. Last season, he was named the tourney’s most valuable player, then hit the game-winning shot that sent OSU to the Sweet 16 a week later.
But for one day, the Findlay native was every bit a March mortal.
Craft spent nearly 10 minutes on the bench after picking up his fourth foul with 11:44 remaining, watched his teammates outscore Michigan 17-11 during his absence, and struggled upon his return. He missed an open 3-pointer and a pair of free throws, then could not get off the potential game-tying shot.
"It stinks," Craft said. "I’m more disappointed in myself than anything. The way we fought back, it’s very unfortunate that it ended the way it did and with the way I played. But you can’t change it. It’s about learning from the experience."
Ohio State coach Thad Matta said he never considered sticking with the same lineup that gave the Buckeyes their first lead with 7:58 remaining. Not when the team’s senior leader and two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year remained in wait. Craft returned with 2:55 remaining.
"You have to have him out there, no question about that," Matta said. "The way Shannon Scott was playing, there were just possessions where you knew it was going to come down to the defensive end, and you want him in the game when it’s on the line defensively."
Craft finished with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. He now holds the career league tournament record with 58 assists in 12 games.
His only comfort came from the NCAA tournament beginning this week.
“I have at least one game left,” he said. “That’s a bright spot.”
STEPPING ON THE BIG STAGE: Four northwest Ohio natives are enjoying their first dose of March Madness.
Beyond Wisconsin freshman standout and Whitmer graduate Nigel Hayes, Ohio State forward Marc Loving (St. John’s), Badgers forward Vitto Brown (Bowling Green), and Michigan forward Mark Donnal (Anthony Wayne) all took in this week’s Big Ten tournament.
"It's a big stage," said Loving, who hit a 3-pointer in his five minutes Saturday. "Just being in this environment, you have to absorb the surroundings, and eventually in the future, it's going to pay off with the experience."
Donnal, meanwhile, spent Saturday savoring the Wolverines’ win with his teammates. He redshirted this season, contributing as a member of Michigan’s scout team.
"It’s been a great year so far, taking it all in," Donnal said. "It’s been a great learning experience. My time’s coming. I’m just enjoying watching my teammates play, doing what I can to get everybody better."
Brown appeared in 11 games for the Badgers this season.