PITTSBURGH – Aaron Craft not only guided Ohio State to a third-round NCAA tournament victory Saturday.
He also gave the Buckeyes’ next opponent plenty to think about.
The sophomore point guard is known for his smooth playmaking skills, and those were on display against Gonzaga, with 10 assists.
But he also looked for his own offense, tying his season-high with 17 points in Ohio State’s 73-66 victory over Gonzaga in an East regional third-round game at Consol Energy Center.
The Buckeyes (29-7) will face either Florida State or Cincinnati in a regional semifinal Thursday in Boston.
I think (Gonzaga) wanted Aaron to score the basketball,” said Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger, who had 18 points but only four rebounds. “Everybody doesn’t understand that Aaron is a scorer. But he passes first.
“That was their game plan,” Sullinger added. “He capitalized on it.”
Craft shot 7 for 9 from the floor, but only 1 for 3 from 3-point range.
Most of his scoring came on drives through traffic against a Gonzaga team conscious of Sullinger, and Deshaun Thomas, who scored 31 points in Thursday’s second-round win over Loyola of Maryland.
Craft said that with “what Jared is capable of, what Deshaun is capable of, a lot of teams try to focus on those guys. … There were open lanes. I found some (and) did a good job of getting in (to the paint) and letting my teammates make plays, as well.”
“We just decided that (Craft) needed to score,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, explaining his strategy, “and (that) we were going to dedicate some of our attention to some other people who had been kind of proven scorers.”
Gonzaga (26-7), which lost in the round of 32 for the third consecutive year, led by seven in the first half but trailed by as many as 10 in the second half before rallying to tie it at 61 on a 3-pointer by Elias Harris with 4:03 to go. But Sullinger scored six points in a 7-0 run that put the Buckeyes ahead to stay.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few said the Bulldogs “went toe-to-toe with a really good team. (It) wouldn’t surprise me if they are cutting down the nets in New Orleans. They’re right at that level with some of those other good teams, like Syracuse and Kentucky.”
The Buckeyes could face the Orange if they get to the regional final, and Syracuse would be wise to study the way Craft and the Buckeyes took advantage of Gonzaga’s defensive plan.
“It was tough for them to guard us,” said Thomas, who had 18 points. “They can’t just focus on one guy.”