Aaron Craft was struggling down the stretch of Ohio State’s NCAA West Regional third-round game against Iowa State.
But when the game was on the line Craft was cash money.
His three-pointer from the right wing with 0.5 of a second left lifted the second-seeded Buckeyes to a 78-75 win over the 10th-seeded Cyclones before a raucous sellout crowd at the University of Dayton Arena.
Unlike the rest of the top four seeds in the NCAA West Regional, second-seeded Ohio State survived the first weekend of the tournament. The Buckeyes (28-7) advance to a regional final match-up with No. 6 seed Arizona on Thursday in Los Angeles. OSU is the only team in the country to reach the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive year.
“I think the thing I'm most proud of is the Ohio State University is the only team in college basketball that we're going to our fourth straight Sweet 16,” Matta said. “With this basketball team, that was something that we had talked about coming into the tournament.
“That was about as high powered of a college basketball game as you could have. There were great plays made by all the guys on the court. We had said last night in a meeting that we'd like to get about a 12 point lead knowing they were going to make a run at us. I think we got to 13, and they definitely did that.”
Ohio State appeared to have this game locked up, forging a 69-56 lead with just over six minutes left. But the Buckeyes – after a couple of turnovers and missed shots in succession by Craft – allowed Iowa State to go on a 17-2 run to grab a 73-71 lead with 3:00 left.
But Craft drew a charge and made a free throw to tie the game at 75-75 with 1:12 left. OSU’s Deshaun Thomas then stole an Iowa State pass with 1:02 left. Craft missed a jumper with 29 seconds left, but the ball went out of bounds to OSU.
He then held it for over 28 seconds. Due to a switch on a pick by OSU’s LaQuinton Ross, ISU center Georges Niang was guarding Craft. He waved Thomas away, stepped forward and, with Niang giving ground, calmly drained a three from the right wing with 0.5 of a second left for what became the winning margin. After a timeout, Iowa State didn’t even manage a good heave to try and tie it.
“I had LaQuinton's screen and some back side action with Deshaun, obviously, coming off a couple, wanted to get him open, get him a shot,” Craft said. “They switched. I got their biggest guy on me, made a read, took the shot and fortunately enough, it went in.
Thomas had 22 points and five rebounds to lead Ohio State.
Craft’s heroic shot gave him 18 points to go with six assists. LaQuinton Ross had 10 of his 17 points in the second half for the Buckeyes.
Korie Lucious led Iowa State (23-12) with 19 points and Will Clyburn had 17. The Cyclones came into the game fourth nationally in scoring at 79 points per game and first in three-point goals per game at nine. They hit 12 of 25 threes in this game to nearly steal it from OSU.
“I can't tell you how proud I am of our guys with the effort being down 13 with just over six left, to fight all the way back, take a lead, and have a chance to win that game,” said Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg.
“Our guys made big plays. They played unselfishly, got the ball to the right people, to the right spots on the floor. We stepped up and knocked down big shots. Hey, Ohio State is a heck of a team. They're playing with a great rhythm right now. They’ve won 10 in a row. Congratulations to them. I think they've got a long way to go in this tournament.”
The Cyclones played most of the game without starting guard Chris Babb, sidelined with an ankle sprain.
The Buckeyes led 38-36 at halftime following a frenetic first 20 minutes. Thomas had 13 points in the first half, which saw seven ties and 10 lead changes. Neither team led by more than six in the first half.
Iowa State led 9-4 early before OSU reeled off 10 straight points. Craft and Thompson each hit a pair of free throws, Thomas hit an 18-footer, Craft drove for a layup and Shannon Scott had a steal and layup as OSU went up 14-9 with 12:22 left in the half.
OSU led 17-14 after Thomas splashed a three off a LaQuinton Ross assist. Lenzelle Smith Jr. hit a three and Thomas scored on a spin to give OSU its biggest lead of the half at 22-16 with 9:21 left.
Iowa State rallied with seven straight, taking the lead on a pair of free throws that made it 25-23 with 6:38 left.
The final four minutes of the half saw six lead changes. ISU went up 30-29 on a free throw by Melvin Ejim. OSU regained the lead at 32-30 with a three by Ross. But ISU’s Georges Niang answered with a three for a 33-32 lead. Craft then drove the lane for a layup and a 34-33 lead.
But Clyburn answered with a three from the right corner for a 36-34 lead. OSU’s Thomas tied it at 36-36 with a layup off a Craft pass. After a defensive stop, Ross converted a nifty spin move for a layup and a 38-36 lead that held up at the half.
ISU’s Korie Lucious canned a three to open the half and put the Cyclones up 39-38. Craft and Thomas each hit jumpers to put the Buckeyes up 43-39 with 17:00 left.
Thompson then hit a three from the top of the key off a Craft assist for a 46-41 lead. A Smith three made it 52-46 with 14:10 left. Iowa State rallied with five straight, including a putback jam by Ejim, to cut it to one at 52-51 with 11:49 left.
But the Buckeyes went on a 13-2 run to build a 65-53 lead with 8:17 left. Thomas started it with a three from the left corner off a Craft assist. Ross then converted an ISU turnover into a layup. Ross then canned a clutch three from the top of the key. He was later fouled on a drive and made two free throws. After ISU’s Niang had a layup, Ross drilled another three from the left wing for a 65-53 lead.
“I think coming off the bench I have an advantage because I get to watch the pace of the game, and I get to see what those guys are doing, switches on pick and rolls and all that,” Ross said. “I was able to come in the game and set a few screens for Aaron and get open. I was able to knock down a couple of shots.
Lucious stopped the run with a three for the Cyclones to make it 65-56.
But Scott drove for a layup to give OSU its biggest lead at that point at 13, 69-56, with 6:05 left.
Iowa State did not go away. The Cyclones scored 10 straight with a three by Ejim, a Tyrus McGee layup, a pair of free throws by Clyburn, a three by McGee and a three-point play by Lucious to tie it at 69-69 with 3:53 left.
During this stretch, Craft had two missed layups under pressure and also missed the front end of two one-and-one opportunities.
Thomas stopped the bleeding by drawing a foul and making two free throws for a 71-69 lead. It was short-lived though as ISU’s McGee was left alone and hit a three for a 72-71 lead with 3:22 left. Then, after a Craft turnover and foul, McGee made 1 of 2 free throws for a 73-71 lead with 3:00 left.
OSU regained the lead as Craft curled around a Thomas screen, scored and was fouled. His free throw made it 74-73 with 2:35 left.
Scott then fouled McGee during a scrum for a loose ball. His two free throws made it 75-74 for ISU with 2:22 left. After Ross traveled, ISU’s Clyburn appeared to score on a drive but the basket was waved off due to a charge with Craft stepping in under him.
Craft was then fouled on a drive and made 1 of 2 free throws to tie it at 75-75 with 1:15 left.
OSU’s Thomas then deflected a pass from Ejim to Niang to teammate Thompson for a steal with 1:02 left. OSU held the ball until Craft missed a 17-foot jumper, but ISU knocked the ball out of bounds with 29 seconds left.
OSU inbounded to Craft and he held it for the entire possession. ISU’s Niang backed off him and that gave Craft the opening to shoot – and hit – the biggest shot of his career. The three-pointer put OSU up 78-75 with 0.5 of a second left.
“I was just trying to stay as focused and poised,” Craft said. “I did some things down the stretch I don't normally do. Missed some shots and missed some free throws. We had confidence in about three or four guys at the end that could take a shot. This game just happened to be me, and I was able to knock it down.”
Matta was happy with the read and the execution.
“They set the screen and switched,” Matta said. “The guy jumped up into the passing lane, to be honest. When I saw Aaron, he was looking for what we had talked about. I saw him look back, and he knew the big kid was on him. I saw him get in his rhythm with each dribble. The kid wasn't pushing up.
“I was perfectly fine with the shot. As Aaron said, I knew with the time, the situation, we were going into overtime if it didn't go in. We had told him, when we took the time out, let's get the last shot and go for the win.”
Iowa State inbounded to Lucious but he didn’t even get a real heave off at the buzzer.
* Thompson added seven points for OSU. Smith had six points, while Scott had six points, three rebounds and three steals.
* There was some controversy on the late charge that Craft took on Clyburn with 1:41 left and whether Craft got outside the semi-circle that denotes the no-charge zone.
Here was the response from John Adams, NCAA National Coordinator of Men’s Basketball Officiating, to a pool reporter in Dayton regarding Ohio State-Iowa State game:
“I spoke with the official, and he determined the defender established legal guarding position outside the restricted area prior to the offensive player leaving the floor to start his shot,” Adams said. “When asked, the official said he did not see the defender’s foot over the restricted area line. By rule, this is not a reviewable play.”
* Iowa State shot 44.2 percent for the game (23-of-52). The Buckeyes have held opposing teams under 50 percent shooting in 32 of 35 games.
* Since the NCAA field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Ohio State has reached the Sweet 16 now eight times. That includes the last three years in a row. No team remaining in this year’s tournament has a chance to make it to four straight Sweet 16s.
* This is Ohio State’s 29th NCAA appearance. The Buckeyes are now 53-27 all-time. This is Iowa State’s 15th appearance. The Cyclones are 14-15 all-time.
* Ohio State ended the regular season seventh in the AP poll and sixth in the USA Today coaches poll. Iowa State was unranked. OSU is now 23-0 against unranked teams this year. Against unranked opponents, Matta owns a 204-22 record as Ohio State head coach.
* Matta has compiled a record of 52-12 as a head coach in March, the third-best record by percentage (.812) among active coaches.
* With 22 points, Thomas moved to No. 12 on the all-time scoring list at Ohio State (1,587 total points), passing Terance Dials (1,566 points) and Allan Hornyak (1,572 points). He needs 10 points to surpass Robin Freeman (1,597 points).
Thomas is tied for third on Ohio State’s all-time NCAA tournament scoring list with William Buford at 162 points, passing John Havlicek (156).
He has scored in double figures in all 35 games this season.
* Ross’ 17 points marked his 11th game this season in double figures. He tied a career-high with three 3-point field goals.
* OSU is now 6-0 all-time against Iowa State. The schools last played in 2005-06. The teams met Dec. 7, 2005, at Des Moines, Iowa, with OSU winning 70-67. The Buckeyes won the return game 75-56 on Dec. 19, 2006, in Columbus.
The teams met once previously in the NCAA with Ohio State winning 75-64 in a 1985 first-round game in Tulsa, Okla.
* The Buckeyes have won 10 straight games since a Feb. 17 loss at Wisconsin (71-49).
* OSU is now 5-2 all-time in NCAA games at UD Arena. The Buckeyes failed to advance to the Sweet 16 their last two times in the Gem City (2006 and 2009).
* Since the NCAA field expanded in 1985, Ohio State is now 8-6 in games to reach the Sweet 16.
* This is OSU’s seventh NCAA trip in nine seasons under Thad Matta. Under Matta, OSU is now 16-6 in NCAA Tournament games. Matta’s overall record as a college coach in the NCAA is 22-10. Including conference tournaments, the NCAA and the NIT, Matta’s teams are 55-16 all-time in postseason play as a college coach and 40-11 in the postseason at OSU.
* The Buckeyes advance to the NCAA West Regional at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. They will face No. 6 seed Arizona (27-7) in a regional semifinal Thursday night.
Arizona is coached by Matta's former Xavier assistant Sean Miller. They met once before in the 2007 NCAA second-round at Lexington with OSU taking a 78-71 win in overtime. That was the game where OSU's Ron Lewis hit a three at the end of regulation to force the overtime.
"I know this: We will be playing the best team on the West Coast when we get to Los Angeles," Matta said.
The coach revealed he spoke with Miller on the phone this past Monday and it was only then that they realized their teams had a chance to play in the regional semifinals.
"He sent me a text last night and said, 'We'll be waiting for you in LA,' " Matta said.
* Click here for the box score of OSU-ISU.
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Press Conference Transcript
Here is the archive of OSU’s postgame press conference:
COACH MATTA: I think the thing I'm most proud of is the Ohio State University is the only team in college basketball that we're going to our fourth straight Sweet 16. With this basketball team, that was something that we had talked about coming into the tournament.
That was about as high powered of a college basketball game as you could have. There were great plays made by all the guys on the court. We had said last night in a meeting that we'd like to get about a 12 point lead knowing they were going to make a run at us. I think we got to 13, and they definitely did that.
There's countless plays, obviously, the potential behind Aaron's shot, that was a tremendous basketball play. He made a great read. I'll let you talk to these guys about it.
Q. Aaron, for you, the last shot, I don't know what was discussed in the huddle. Share that with us, and then as the play developed, take us through it, please.
AARON CRAFT: I had LaQuinton's screen and some back side action with Deshaun, obviously, coming off a couple, wanted to get him open, get him a shot. They switched.
I got their biggest guy on me, made a read, and fortunately enough, it went in.
Q. Aaron, how difficult is that? You missed some free throws, and you had missed the jump shot before that went off the rim. Did you put that out of your mind, or how did that affect you at all?
AARON CRAFT: I was just trying to stay as focused and poised. I did some things down the stretch I don't normally do. Missed some shots and missed some free throws.
We had confidence in about three or four guys at the end that could take a shot. This game just happened to be me, and I was able to knock it down.
Q. Aaron, you waved Deshaun off, but is that can you just talk about that? Obviously, the play was to him. You had the big guy on you. Is there any reluctance for you to do that at that point? You're taking it all on.
AARON CRAFT: No, just made a read. If they wouldn't have switched, probably would have been a different play. They switched and I got their biggest guy. The shot I took right before that felt pretty good. I thought I could make the next one, and was able to do so.
Q. Please tell us what that moment was like. Did you have butterflies in your stomach? How do you keep how did you stay poised? And the moment when you saw it swish.
AARON CRAFT: Just trying to stay as calm and poised as possible, probably a little the moment is definitely bigger than me. As a team, we did a great job down the stretch finding a way to hold on. It just happened to be in my hands at the end of the game.
Once you see it go in, the first thing I think of is how much time is left? What are they going to do? Are they going to quick inbounds? Find a way to get a stop before we can celebrate or anything like that.
Q. LaQuinton, Aaron's situation doesn't happen unless you play maybe your best game at Ohio State. What did you see in their defense that allows you to be so effective offensively?
LAQUINTON ROSS: I think coming off the bench I have an advantage because I get to watch the pace of the game, and I get to see what those guys are doing, switches on pick and rolls and all that. I was able to come in the game and set a few screens for Aaron and get open. I was able to knock down a couple of shots.
Q. Aaron, you alluded to some of those plays that weren't normal for you down the stretch. Do you get especially at the free throw line. Do you get nervous?
AARON CRAFT: I didn't feel nervous. I missed a couple of front ends of the one and ones. The biggest one I probably make of those two is probably the first one. Just try to move on to the next play. I didn't do anything about the play behind. We a good job of sticking together as a team. A lot of time was left, and we were able to come out on top.
Q. Aaron, would you have had the confidence two months ago in that same situation to take that shot?
AARON CRAFT: I'd like to think so. Everything that's gone on with us our teammates still believe in me, and that's the biggest thing. Coach also plays where there's multiple options and you don't have to focus on one guy.
If one play is taken away, the best part about this team is other guys can make plays. LaQuinton could make a shot. D.T. can obviously make shots like that. Tonight was my turn, and we get to go on to the next round.
Q. Aaron, I was just curious, growing up in Ohio, as a kid, you literally dream of hitting a game winning shot in the NCAA Tournament for Ohio State?
AARON CRAFT: Growing up in Ohio, Ohio State is always in the back of your mind. I was always a football fan and that’s what kind of got me involved at first.
Coach has done a great job over the past few years of really bringing the basketball program along with it. I’m just very blessed and fortunate to be able to be a part this and be able to make a shot like that for this university.
It feels great, and hopefully we can keep this thing going.
Q. Aaron, you hadn't taken a 3 all game. Did you know where you were, or were you just taking the shot, whatever it was, a 2 or 3, or were you cognizant that you were behind the arc?
AARON CRAFT: I had a little awareness. The shot I took before was a little inside the arc, and it felt pretty good. Same type of situation. I had the same guy on me.
I knew I had a little bit of space, so I didn't have to rush it too much. Just got a good clean shot off, and it went in.
Q. LaQuinton, can you talk about the effectiveness of the small lineup that you guys have been using much more of late, especially today.
LAQUINTON ROSS: Our small group actually causes a mismatch problem for other teams. They were out there with their big, and they found that me and D.T. was able to go up against the fours and match up with them really well. It was great.
Our small group has been producing a lot for us. Use them down the stretch.
Q. Aaron, could you talk about that kind of thin line that you were walking between going home the goat and going home the hero?
AARON CRAFT: I can't tell you it was crossing my mind too much during the game. If it was, I probably would have missed.
I was in a good situation. If I miss, we still go to overtime. I don't think it's not as big of a pressure situation. Obviously, it's up there. Like I said earlier, my teammates believed in me. I'm just glad I could come through for them.
Q. Did you ever actually play in the backyard, two seconds, one second, shoot? I mean, most kids did, for Ohio State.
AARON CRAFT: I think we know I'm a defensive guy. So I think I'm in the backyard three, two, one, taking a charge something like that.
Every kid dreams of moments like that. I'm just very blessed to be in this situation with this group of guys. Like I said, it's great to come through for them, and it's great we can continue to play more basketball.
Q. Aaron, in this region, where every top seed has gotten upset, it seems, do you guys look at that as a fan? The regular fans look and say, oh, Ohio State has a great road now. Is it the opposite for you guys? Do you look at it and think, oh, anybody can do anything on any given day?
AARON CRAFT: With what's gone on in college basketball this year, anything is possible. You can see that going on with whatever is happening in our bracket right now.
As basketball fans, you kind of have an awareness of it, but the teams that are left, they're there for a reason, and they're not going to be slouches. They're great teams. What we have to do is enjoy this tonight, get back to Columbus, and find ways to get better before we play in the next game.
THE MODERATOR: Aaron and LaQuinton, thank you.
Questions for Coach Matta.
Q. Thad, Aaron said he didn't have anything going on in his mind but the next play. What was going on in your mind when the play that you had to Deshaun got shut off and you knew that the guy who had had some trouble in the previous few minutes was going to have to take that shot?
COACH MATTA: I saw the same thing Aaron saw. It was right in front of us. They switched it. They made a good read. They set the screen and switched. The guy jumped up into the passing lane, to be honest. When I saw Aaron, he was looking for what we had talked about. I saw him look back, and he knew the big kid was on him. I saw him get in his rhythm with each dribble. The kid wasn't pushing up.
I was perfectly fine with the shot. As Aaron said, I knew with the time, the situation, we were going into overtime if it didn't go in.
We had told him, when we took the time out, let's get the last shot and go for the win. He could have timed it maybe .5 too long, but it was pretty good timing on his part.
Q. Thad, the game might have separated there when you went small. Can you talk about that lineup and why it's been so effective for you and maybe why didn't you go to it sooner. Were you waiting for a special moment in the game?
COACH MATTA: I think that we were very, very nervous in this game with their ability to spread us out. We knew that there was going to come a time when we were going to play that lineup, that particular lineup.
I thought Shannon Scott was as good as he could be today, which was tremendous in what he gave us. There wasn't a defining moment that we said now is when we're going to go to it. We'd actually talked about starting it at halftime. Those guys did a good job. We got crushed on the glass today, and we've got to get that corrected, but as LaQuinton said, it got us some momentum.
Aaron and I were talking about it back there. We missed the front end of the one and one. When you miss that, it gives the team momentum to get back in it. That was it.
Q. I was wondering if Aaron's shot today reminds you of Ron Lewis against Xavier five years ago or six years ago.
COACH MATTA: That one sent it to overtime. I think from the standpoint I hadn't thought about that. I mean, it was definitely a big time shot. I know that Michael had gone at Ron at a dribble and clipped his man for that shot. I'm glad the shot went in, both of them.
Q. Thad, Deshaun's not necessarily known for his defense. In fact, the guys are down there giving him a hard time. Can you just talk about that play at the end, he was in the right place.
COACH MATTA: Huge steal.
Q. Maybe he didn't mean to be there, I'm not sure, but he was there.
COACH MATTA: It's funny because he was on his way recovering and got his hand up we talk about it. We drill it. That was a big time play in the game, couldn't have been more excited when he made it.
He cramped, I think, after that, but that was that was a great play. They really had Deshaun out on the perimeter a lot today. I thought he played pretty sound defensively after he got blitzed the first time on the dribble in the first half.
Q. To follow up on that, that play they ran that play, I think Niang had scored easily on the layup in the first half. Talk about the toughness of your team, Deshaun especially at the end. And, of course, taking the charge late, the defensive toughness that you guys always talk about.
COACH MATTA: It has to be who we are. I am delighted that these guys have taken a lot of pride on the defensive end of the floor. I don't like the fact that we give up 55 percent in the second half.
Those are the type of plays that we've had to make in this run. We've won eight or nine in a row, whatever it is. Those have been the type of plays down the stretch.
We told our guys going into this game, this is a Big Ten basketball game. It's going to come down to the last couple of minutes. We're going to have to be sound. We're going to have to do the things, and, sure enough, we were right.
Q. Thad, Craft says we've gone to the next thing, but how difficult is that? He missed free throws. He missed the layup. He got loose with the ball, all kinds of stuff we've never seen him do in three years, and then he does what he does at the end.
COACH MATTA: I hope that they have kind of my mindset. We always talk about we play forward. At one point we had that lead, and they tied it up. We fouled Lucious on the and-one. I told the guys just relax. We can't change anything that happened in the past. Only thing we can do is play out the last four minutes here and try to win the basketball game. We can't change anything that's happened.
Aaron, he definitely listens.
Q. Thad, you talked about the rebounding advantage they have, but even though you played small most of the second half, their offensive rebounding really didn't come into play down the stretch as much as it had earlier in the game.
COACH MATTA: That's because they were making them in the second half.
Q. I was going to say what happened to at least help you to at least stem that tide.
COACH MATTA: Well, we said we're not going to rebound because we let them make it on the first shot.
Honestly, we were challenging our guys. They spread you they do such a good job of spreading you. So those guys have such running starts coming in. We did not we were playing flat footed when the ball went up, and those were the things.
We had balls hit us in the hands. We don't come up with them. Those are things we've got to get corrected.
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