Most kids who grow up playing basketball have pretended to count down the clock and hit the winning shot in a momentous game. But Aaron Craft isn’t like most kids.
“I think you know I’m a defensive guy. I think I was in the backyard going, ‘Three, two, one’ and taking a charge,” the Ohio State junior guard said. “But, yeah, every kid dreams about moments like that. I’m so blessed to be in that situation and come through for this group of guys.”
Craft bled the clock with some casual dribbles at the top of the key and swished a 3-pointer with a half-second left for a 78-75 victory over Iowa State at UD Arena to send the second-seeded Buckeyes to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the fourth straight year.
They’ll meet sixth-seeded Arizona on Thursday in the regional semifinals at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. In the West bracket, seeds No. 1, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 are all gone.
With the game tied, OSU’s Deshaun Thomas deflected pass to force a turnover. Craft missed a 15-footer, but the ball went out of bounds to the Buckeyes at 29.9 seconds left.
Coach Thad Matta then devised a play for Thomas, who had a game-high 22 points. But the Cyclones blew it up with some defensive switches. Those changes, though, left Georges Niang on the slithery Craft, and the 6-foot-7, 245-pound forward was in retreat mode for fear of being burned.
“We wanted to keep them out of the paint. … That’s where Craft was most dangerous, getting in there and getting shots at the rim,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said.
“You’ve got to take your hat off to him. The kid stepped up and made a big shot. That’s who he is — about his entire time at Ohio State, making big shots like that.”
A Craft charge also figured into the outcome. The Buckeyes (28-7) led by 13 with six minutes to go, but the 10th-seeded Cyclones (23-12), who owned the boards (36-22) and were scorching on 3-pointers (12-of-25), roared back with a 13-0 run in a span of 1:57 to wipe out the deficit.
Leading by one, Iowa State’s Will Clyburn was called for an offensive foul with 1:41 to go. Craft slid over on the drive and got the controversial call. Replays showed the heel of his foot barely hovering over the line marking the restricted area under the basket, where helping defenders aren’t allowed to set up and draw offensive fouls.
It would have been a blocking foul if his heel wasn’t raised. The NCAA issued a statement saying the official believed he made the correct call and that the play wasn’t reviewable.
Nearly an 80 percent foul shooter, Craft, who had 18 points and six assists, missed a pair of 1-and-1’s to put lighter fluid on the Cyclone rally and was just 1-of-4 on foul shots in the final 4:40. But he atoned for that with his 3-pointer, which is practically the only facet of the game he hasn’t mastered (he was shooting 29.3 percent coming into the game).
Thomas, the junior star who had a hot hand, was poised to take the decisive shot but had no qualms with the way it worked out.
“My freshman year, I probably would have gotten mad. Last year, I probably would have gotten mad,” Thomas said about not getting the ball. “But this is me growing up: I was like, he’s got it. I believe in him. And I just let him go to work.
“One thing he did, though, when he made it, he goes, ‘Let’s play D! Let’s play D!’ “
Expecting anything else?
As for the late-game collapse, Matta said: “I told the guys, ‘Hey, relax. We can’t change anything that’s happened in the past. The only thing we can do is play these last four minutes and try to win this basketball game.’
“Aaron, he definitely listens.”