IOWA CITY — The Iowa student section decided it was going to boo Ohio State star Aaron Craft every time he touched the ball Tuesday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
In retrospect, maybe that wasn’t the best idea.
“That ignites him," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said afterward. “If they ever spent 30 seconds with the kid, they’d feel bad that they did it because he’s the greatest person I’ve ever met."
He’s not a bad basketball player either.
The Ohio State senior had one of the best offensive stretches of his career in the first half, got some help from teammates Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Shannon Scott in the second half and exerted his defensive will on Iowa star Devyn Marble in both halves as the Buckeyes avenged an earlier loss with a 76-69 victory over Iowa.
The outcome added another wrinkle to the topsy-turvy Big Ten race as the 17th-ranked Hawkeyes suffered their second straight loss at home to a team they beat on the road three weeks earlier.
“I don’t know. I wish I could answer," Matta said when asked about the wild happenings in the league in recent weeks. “It’s hard. It’s challenging. There used to be days when you felt pretty good at home. That hasn’t been the case this year."
Craft, who had as many turnovers (6) as points in an 84-74 loss to Iowa on Jan. 12, was at his best Tuesday. He scored 14 points in the first half and finished with 17, one short of his season high. He also added six assists and six steals, and held Marble to just 10 points, about eight below his average in Big Ten play.
Asked what the Buckeyes did differently from the first meeting, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said: “They put Craft on Marble."
The Hawkeyes (17-6, 6-4 Big Ten) never really got into an offensive flow.
“We played hard tonight, but we never really played well," McCaffery said. “We never really got into sync."
But he said the game mostly was lost on defense in the second half. The Buckeyes (18-5, 5-5) shot 54 percent from the field after halftime and put up 45 points in the final 20 minutes.
“At one point they were shooting 60 percent. I don’t know what they finished with in the second half," Iowa forward Aaron White said. “Couldn’t get stops, couldn’t get scores. Nothing was going for us, couldn’t make a jump shot, couldn’t make a layup, couldn’t make a free throw … tough night."
Ohio State put together a run of nine straight points to open a 26-17 lead with about 5 minutes left in the first half. However, the Hawkeyes bounced back quickly with eight straight points of their own and finished the half with a flourish. With 16 seconds to go before halftime, Marble and Mike Gesell trapped Craft near midcourt, stripped him of the ball, and Gesell fired a pass to White for a dunk that gave the Hawkeyes a 33-31 halftime edge.
But Smith and Scott, who both were held in check in the first half, scored 14 of the first 16 points in the second half and the Buckeyes gradually built a 58-49 lead.
Iowa got as close as four points on three occasions after that, but the Buckeyes had an answer every time.
When the Hawkeyes got it to within 58-54, Craft made a perfect inbounds pass to Amir Williams for a dunk to stop the Iowa charge. When it got to be 63-59, Craft responded by taking it to the basket for a 3-point play, collecting his only points of the second half.
When the Hawkeyes got to within 66-62 on a Zach McCabe free throw with 53.9 seconds remaining, the Buckeyes closed out the victory at the foul line, making 10 of 12 free throws in the final minute.
Mike Gesell led Iowa with 16 points, 13 of those coming in the second half, and backup center Gabe Olaseni continued his recent hot streak with 14.
“We got good looks, we got the ball inside, we got 15 off rebounds, which is great …" McCaffery said. “I thought the guys fought hard …
“We don’t want to get carried away here. We lost to a real good team. We didn’t feel like we played our best but give them credit for having a lot to do with that."