STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Aaron Craft crossed his arms and gently tapped the back of his head against the brick wall in the concourse of Bryce Jordan Arena. He needed to calm himself before the questions started.
This wasn’t the first time Craft stood in the bowels of an opposing Big Ten arena in defeat. Now a senior, Craft has been there many times before, even in very successful Ohio State seasons.
But though he wore familiar mannerisms when the questions started, Craft emerged from the locker room differently. He slammed the door open in frustration, showing an anger that hasn’t been typical during his career.
Perhaps it’s because Craft has never been here before. He hasn’t felt many losses like No. 20 Ohio State’s 65-63 defeat at last-place Penn State on Thursday.
“Obviously down the stretch (of seasons) since I have been here we have done a good job of finding ways to win,” Craft said. “This is tough … But what can you do?”
Things were supposed to be the same for Craft. Instead, he’ll deal with heading into the NCAA Tournament like this.
It has been nearly a month since the Buckeyes fell to Penn State on their home floor – the lowest point of the season – and in the time since Ohio State won six games and turned around a season that once felt doomed.
But after senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. missed what would have been go-ahead threes on each of the Buckeyes’ final two possessions, Ohio State (22-7, 9-7 Big Ten) fell to the last-place Big Ten team for the second time this season.
And March is only two days away.
“The whole game we never found a way to get ourselves out of it,” Craft said. “We can’t do that. That can’t be us unless we want to be home early or we want the offseason to start as soon as possible. That can’t be us.”
Ohio State senior Aaron Craft missed a large portion of the No. 20 Buckeyes’ 65-63 loss at Penn State on Thursday because of foul trouble. He was visibly angry in the councourse following the game.
For a large portion of the game, it wasn’t.
Why? Because Craft picked up his second foul midway through the first half and sat until the break. The Buckeyes, who led by as many as 11 in the first half, were hampered without their senior leader on the floor.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta emphatically disagreed with the call, but corralled his emotions as Craft came out of the game and headed toward the bench. Penn State (14-14, 5-10) switched to a zone defense and chipped away at Ohio State’s lead before only trailing by two at halftime.
The Buckeyes have struggled all year against opposing zone defenses. Without Craft, a gifted driver who can penetrate those defenses when on the floor, the Buckeyes never could create the necessary separation on the road.
Without Craft on the floor, Ohio State is different.
“It kills us,” Matta said.
Perhaps that’s what Craft’s visible anger was more about, that he was limited to only 19 minutes in a must-win game that Ohio State lost. Or maybe it’s because this loss means the Buckeyes haven’t progressed as far as they seemed.
Ohio State came into the game winners of six of their last seven since losing to Penn State on their home floor on Jan. 29. Things were starting to feel normal.
The Buckeyes have long been out of the Big Ten race, but a win would have put them in the driver’s seat for fourth place and a first round bye in the conference tournament. This is a setback.
“Knowing what is at stake,” junior foward LaQuinton Ross said, “this is going to hurt a little bit more.”
Is this what’s normal now?
“Wasted opportunities,” Craft said. “Three games left. You can’t take anything for granted.”
Then he walked past the reporters back into Ohio State’s locker room.
Again, he slammed the door.