B ehind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Aaron Craft remembers the game-winner that saved Ohio State from being upset in 2013.
Don’t call it “luck.” Game-winning shots are not coincidences. Every year during March Madness there are players — both All-Americans and role players — who are given the opportunity to keep their team’s dream alive in the Big Dance.
Some make the big shot and some don’t. But what some fans at home may not realize is that countless hours, days, weeks and months of preparation go into that moment. My moment came in the second round of the 2013 tournament in our game against Iowa State.
The game was a bit tighter than some might have expected for a No. 10 versus No. 2, but as any bracketologist would tell you, sometimes seedings go out the window when teams hit the hardwood. We had a 13-point lead late in the game — it honestly shouldn’t have come down to a last-second shot.
However, Iowa State hit a barrage of three-pointers, including three from Tyrus McGee, who came off the bench and got the Cyclones right back in the game. Unfortunately, I also played a part in their comeback by missing two late free throws and a jumper with just under 30 seconds left.
Then came the most controversial play of the game: Will Clyburn drove down the lane, I set myself up to take a charge and we collided just outside the restricted area. The referees called it a charge.
It was a moment that would go on to be debated by everyone from analysts like Charles Barkley to keyboard warriors in the comment sections of postgame recaps. The fact is, the call was a close one, but it went in our favor, and it set up the biggest play of my collegiate career.
The game was tied 75-75 and the shot clock was turned off. We had one last chance to win it and avoid overtime. The Cyclones and virtually everyone else in the game expected the ball to go to our leading scorer, Deshaun Thomas. Iowa State had him covered pretty tightly and put 6-foot-7 freshman Georges Niang on me. As time ticked away, I noticed that less than five seconds remained. I realized I had to take the shot.
So I waved off Deshaun, squared up and let it fly.
Nothing but net.
With just 0.5 seconds remaining on the clock, our trip to the Sweet 16 was virtually sealed. Shooting just 30 percent from the three-point line and with 10 PPG, I was not the star for the Buckeyes that year, but I was without a doubt one of the most hard-working players in Division I basketball.
My work ethic goes back to my upbringing and influence from my parents. My dad was a football defensive coordinator, so linebackers and other players from his team would come to our house. I witnessed the countless hours they spent practicing and breaking down film. When my brother and I got old enough to play, the fire of coaching was still in my dad. He taught us how to be fundamentally sound and instilled in us an invaluable level of dedication.
This foundation was something that helped me immensely once I got to Ohio State. Before we ran our first mile as a team, coach Dave Richardson said he had a surprise for me: It was a 25-pound weight vest that he wanted me to wear while running. While some may have thought it was unfair, it was a challenge I gladly accepted. I looked at the pack and said, “We’re going to attack this and knock it out.” You go through all of that in the spring, summer and offseason to be able to have moments like that one that came against Iowa State 2013. Hitting the game-winning shot in that moment was the product of that hard work and work ethic.
Despite hitting the biggest shot for our team in that year’s tournament, it was right back to reality only a couple hours later. Right after the big shot, there was a brief celebration with my teammates and a swarm of questions from the media, followed by preparation for my chemistry test the next day. On the bus ride after the game, I took a couple quick phone calls and immediately began preparing for my test.
As nerdy as it sounds, I enjoyed school. I enjoyed being able to go to class and learn new things and apply them to my life. My role as a student-athlete was something I took very seriously. I wasn’t one or the other. I was both. My dedication to each was reflected in that the NCAA named me Academic All-American of the Year in 2013 and 2014.
For the few academic scandals involving student-athletes that seem to come out every year, there are thousands of students like myself that successfully dedicate themselves to being both students and athletes. Coach Matta gave me a tremendous blessing, but also a huge responsibility, when he offered me a scholarship to Ohio State. It was my obligation to make the most of that opportunity. I had to give my all on the basketball court and in the classroom. Graduating from Ohio State carries weight and speaks volumes around the world. It will help me for the rest of my life.
Whether I was strapping weight plates to my back during training or preparing for my next exam after hitting a game-winner, preparation was the core of who I was as a student athlete and who I am as a man today.
So please don’t brush off an opposing team’s game-winner as “luck.” You know it wasn’t.
For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.