I had the perfect view for perhaps the best assist I've ever seen in 34 years as a sportswriter during Ohio State's 98-66 victory over George Mason Sunday in the third round of the NCAA East Regional at Quicken Loans Arena.
It came with 8:24 left in the first half and was one of an OSU NCAA tournament record of 15 by freshman point guard Aaron Craft. Surrounded by two George Mason defenders and with his view seemingly obstructed, Craft somehow got the ball to freshman center Jared Sullinger, who laid it in and was fouled. Sullinger made the free throw for a four-point play and a 29-22 lead.
The play was the start of a 23-2 run by OSU that broke the game open.
"He can catch the ball, so I just had to put it in an area where he could grab it,'' Craft explained. "The guy guarding Dave was in between. So I took a chance and threw it to Sully and he was able to catch it and finish it for me.''
Craft also got an assist out of a scrum for a loose ball when he passed to Jon Diebler from the seat of his pants.
"I was upset I lost the ball in the first place,'' Craft said. "So I happened to see Jon's guy come off and try to get it and I happened to get it to him.''
Craft's 15 assists were the fourth-best single-game mark in NCAA Tournament history, going into this year's play. (Apparently records will not be updated until after the weekend's games were completed.)
"As you get to know Aaron, you spend time with him, you watch him develop, it's amazing,'' OSU coach Thad Matta said. "He's been so steady throughout the course of the year. I'm excited for him to get 15 assists because he's a goal-oriented guy. I know before his time is over he's going to beat that record.''
Craft had seven assists on Friday against UT-San Antonio. Before Sunday, his season-high was nine assists against North Carolina A&T.
I can only imagine how much better Craft's going to get. Of course, he has a rapport with Sullinger from AAU ball, which helped encourage Craft to take such a chance. I felt like I was watching a young shortstop's coming-out party with an amazing display on his sport's biggest stage. And the stage only gets bigger next Friday in Newark against Kentucky.
Will we witness the emergence of another OSU point guard just as we did with Mike Conley Jr. in the 2007 NCAA Tournament? At least Matta won't have to worry about Craft turning pro.
Other thoughts from Sunday's game:
- All of the Ohio State football fanatics were out in full force, including Buck I Guy (white hat) and Big Nut (court jester hat). Is Big Nut anything like Big Dawg?
- Matta seemed to be experimenting early with Sullinger, taking him out frequenty, presumably to avoid foul trouble. George Mason didn't play the slow-down style that some OSU opponents had favored and was driving the lane trying to get Sullinger out of the game. With Sullinger going to the bench for good with 12:20 remaining and OSU up 67-42, it was hard to tell if the strategy will work during the tournament.
- The officials let the teams play in the early going and a George Mason defender grabbed Sullinger around the backside on one play. What kind of wingspan does that require?
- By hitting 9 of 12 from 3-point range in the first half, OSU had nearly as many 3s as George Mason had field goals (10).
- A dagger 3 by Jon Diebler at the end of the first half punctuated the amazing shooting display. He certainly has a flair for the dramatic.
- Games against UT-San Antonio and George Mason were like the warmup act. Now comes the real deal in Kentucky, which has several pro prospects that should make for tougher matchups for the Buckeyes.
- The 32-point loss was George Mason's worst since a 34-point setback against North Carolina on Dec. 7, 2003.
- David Lighty stole the show with 25 points, hitting 7 of 7 from 3-point range and 9 of 10 from the field. But with 4:11 remaining in the first half and OSU up 39-22, Diebler and William Buford had hit just 2 of 9 from the field (the rest of the Buckeyes were 13 for 15). Diebler and Buford finished 11 of 23.
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