Cody Cousino / Multimedia editor
DAYTON – In the middle of an arena packed to the rafters with crazed fans standing anxiously, on a court with defenders eyeing him and teammates yelling for the ball, Aaron Craft remained calm.
The score of the third-round NCAA Tournament game between No. 2 seed Ohio State and No. 10 seed Iowa State was tied, 75-75, with the shot clock off and the contest’s final seconds ticking down. Craft dribbled the ball just outside the right wing, with Georges Niang, a freshman forward, isolated on him.
“Give me the ball!” shouted junior forward Deshaun Thomas, who clapped twice after screaming at his junior point guard from the top of the key.
“I’m open! I’m open!” roared junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., who stood unguarded in the right corner.
Craft waved them off. He had run the play coach Thad Matta drew up in the huddle – a pick-and-roll intended to free Thomas for an open look – but Iowa State doubled the junior forward, meaning a big man was left to defend OSU’s rosy-cheeked floor leader.
“He made the right read. (Thomas) was going to have to catch it with his back to the basket. I was fine with it. I’ve said from day one, I’ll live with any decision that kid makes,” Matta said.
Craft waited until the game clock reached three, dribbled hard to the 3-point line, rose up, and fired a shot.
Following a late desperation heave from the Cyclones, that wouldn’t have counted if it had gone in, OSU had reached its fourth straight Sweet 16, upending Iowa State, 78-75, at the University of Dayton Arena Sunday afternoon.
Craft, who scored 18 total points, received a hug from each of his teammates. The fans in attendance – most of whom were Buckeyes fans – cheered and jumped in jubilation.
In a West Region where the No. 1, No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 seeds had already been eliminated, OSU remained alive in its hunt for a second-consecutive Final Four berth.
“I think it’s a great way to win like this. Every game can’t be a blowout. The fact that we won this game gives us a lot of momentum headed to LA,” said sophomore guard Shannon Scott.
Waiting for the Buckeyes at the Staples Center in Los Angeles is No. 6 seed Arizona, a squad Matta called “loaded,” and “the best team on the West Coast.”
For long stretches of the game Sunday, though, OSU’s spot in the West Region’s semi-finals was in serious doubt.
The Cyclones jumped out to an early 7-2 lead, making the Buckeyes look flustered and nervous. OSU settled for contested jumpers on the offensive end and gave up open shots on defense.
“Settle down,” Craft barked to his teammates.
OSU fought back, going on a 12-2 run sparked by Scott’s play off the bench. The sophomore guard, however, was called for a technical foul after an and-one layup in transition when he tossed the basketball at an Iowa State defender.
The Buckeyes’ momentum halted, and OSU scraped into halftime with a 38-36 lead.
Out of the break, the Buckeyes looked like they had taken control of the contest.
Sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross had a 10-point stretch midway through the final half, pushing OSU to a 69-56 lead with 6:04 remaining.
“I think coming off the bench I have an advantage because I get to watch the pace of the game,” Ross said, who totaled 17 points. “I was able to come in the game and set a few screens for Aaron and get open.”
Iowa State then rattled off 13 straight points and took the lead on a 3-pointer from the right corner by senior guard Tyrus McGee with 3:23 left.
“Their coach had a great game plan with us, pinning us down with their bigs against the basket and getting their guards out,” Scott said.
The Cyclones, who had four players in double figures, made 12 3-pointers on the day, including five from redshirt senior guard Korie Lucious, a transfer from Michigan State.
“I think they’re probably the best 3-point shooting team we’ve ever played against,” Scott said.
While the Buckeyes looked like they were wavering during Iowa State’s second-half run, the players insist they were not. One aspect of the game they did falter in, admittedly, was toughness. Iowa State out-rebounded OSU, 36-22, repeatedly getting second chance opportunities at the offensive end.
“For a little segment there, they were the tougher team,” Smith said.
OSU and Iowa State traded free throws and baskets in the game’s final minutes. Craft, the game’s hero, was at times the scapegoat for a potential loss, as he missed two critical free throws down the stretch.
“I was just trying to stay focused and poised. I did some things down the stretch I normally don’t do,” Craft said.
With 58 seconds left and the ball in the hands of Iowa State and the game tied, 75-75, Thomas did something he normally doesn’t do, too. This rare occurrence, however, benefited the Buckeyes, as the junior forward forced a Cyclones turnover, giving OSU the ball back.
“People always talk about my defense, questioning it, but it was a great defensive stop,” Thomas said, who led OSU with 22 points.
I was on (Niang), and they were running that play all game and they scored four points off of it. So I was like, I know they’re going to run this play, and they ran it. I saw a guy run up and I just went over there and got the ball and got the steal.”
Craft got the ball and missed a jumper from the right wing, but Iowa State tipped the ball out of bounds.
Following a timeout from Matta, Craft, with the confidence of his teammates, knocked down the game-winning shot.
“As long as it wasn’t him on the free throw line at that point, I was like, ‘Man, he’s going to make that shot,'” Smith said with a smile. “Big-time players step up and make plays at the end of the game.”
Craft’s reaction to the made bucket surprised one of his teammates.
“When we made the shot, he didn’t even get excited. He was just like, ‘Play D! Play D!'” Thomas said. “That’s the thing about Craft, we love him, he works on and off the court, and you need a guy like that on your side.”
OSU and Arizona will play Thursday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line.