These are all things that happened to Aaron Craft late in this ballgame. The Twitter crowd was out with its pitchforks and lit torches, ready to strike the Buckeyes’ junior point guard. What was a 13-point lead with six minutes remaining became a 2-point deficit with two minutes to go following a 17-2 flash twister from Iowa State. But, Craft made play after play down the stretch, and the goat horns drawn in pencil were erased by a controversial charge taken, a gritty and-one bucket inside, and the game-winner with 0.5 seconds remaining as Craft waved off Deshaun Thomas and sunk the shot himself to lead his Buckeyes to a 4th straight Sweet 16 in a 78-75 thriller in Dayton.
In the spring and summer months, we almost become numb to the large amount of tornado watches and warnings that come across the television or computer screen. In this spring showdown, the Buckeyes were fully aware of the Cyclones’ potential to blow the house that is their tournament lives down. TD saw his Jayhawks get taken to overtime by this team twice, and he warned myself and the other Buckeye fans about this team’s talent. As the West bracket opened up with losses by New Mexico, Kansas State, Wisconsin, and Gonzaga, the sirens were sounding all throughout the West: no top seed is safe. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think all of these upsets and Iowa State’s powder-keg potential had Ohio State on notice and may have saved their season. Iowa State did exactly what we thought they were going to do: shoot a lot of threes and make a lot of threes. They connected on 12 of 25 attempts, with six coming in each half. But overall, the Buckeyes defended respectably around the arc with the Cyclones just hitting some difficult shots.
Ohio State started a little slow with some poor shot selection as well as looks in transition preventing them from grabbing an early lead. They trailed 9-4 five minutes in, and it was the entry of Shannon Scott that once again jump-started this team. Scott led a 8-0 run that was capped by a probing steal by him where he scored the layup and was foul. In a huge momentum swing, however, Scott was given a technical foul deservedly for taunting the Cyclone defender. It was a brainless lapse in judgment, and it proved to be huge as Chris Babb made both free throws as Scott missed his. Two minutes later, Scott was whistled for his second foul, and he was relegated to the bench. The Buckeyes gave up five points and the lead with Scott on the bench for about four minutes before Coach Matta gambled, breaking with his customary habit, and subbed him back in the game.
Offensively, the Buckeyes faced zone for most of the game. Deshaun Thomas was finding open holes in the middle and had an incredibly strong first half with 13 points on 5-for-9 shooting. But, what allowed the Bucks to take a lead (however small it was) into the break was two critical buckets by LaQuinton Ross, a three-pointer followed by a nice ball-fake from the arc and a up-and-under finish on a lay-in. Couple that with Babb turning his ankle (he did not return), and the Buckeyes found a little bit of momentum heading into the break, leading by two.
It wasn’t the three point shooting in actuality that was the biggest thorn in the Buckeyes’ side. No, they’ve won three of four games previous to today when they’ve allowed 10 or more three pointers. Instead, it was a symptom of those three point shots, long rebounds, that were killing OSU. The Buckeyes were absolutely slaughtered on the boards throughout the game, losing the battle 36-22. That includes a stunning 12 offensive rebounds from the Cyclones, half of those from forward Melvin Ejim. It didn’t matter which lineup that Ohio State deployed. Even with Ravenel or Williams in the game, the Big Ten tourney champs couldn’t gather the long misfires with any regularity. In fact, those were really the only wide open looks from three point range that Iowa State was able to muster, though they drilled several with pressure right up on them.
Speaking of Amir and Ravenel, they didn’t see much time at all. As I anticipated, the two combined for just 22 minutes, gathering 2 points and 4 rebounds. That means that Ohio State went small for 18 minutes in this game, including the game’s final 12 minutes. Matta said, “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.”
The officiating in this game almost didn’t allow this to happen as Scott (4), Lenzelle Smith Jr. (4), Sam Thompson (3), and Aaron Craft (3) all battled foul trouble in this tightly called game. In the face of that, however, the Buckeyes extended their lead, with LaQuinton Ross the hero of the stretch. Q scored 10 straight for the Bucks in just a two and a half minute span and increased the lead to 12. In the last several games, Ross has looked to be more aggressive on offense, and he’s shooting the three-point shot with confidence. Another underrated aspect of Ross’s game is his ability to spin in the lane and find the hoop as well as grab his own misses. Had Ross not gone off in that stretch to get the Buckeye lead into double digits, the Buckeyes lose this game due to the Cyclone barrage.
Just as the Bucks seemed to be locking in a victory, Iowa State brought full court pressure. When they fouled, it was Craft that missed the front end of two 1-and-1s that gave the Cyclones an opportunity to strike. In a 19-5 run, Tyrus McGee led his team with 11 points in a three-minute window himself that put the Buckeyes in grave danger.
Once again though, as has happened SO many times this season, Craft made the plays in the game’s final moments when it mattered most. It started with a key lay-in and one more from the line with 2:37 left. Craft started left off a Thomas screen, but worked back right with a couple jukes of hesitation before laying it in with contact. Craft’s surge continued with a very controversial offensive foul call with 1:41 remaining. Cyclone guard Will Clyburn drove right side to the hoop, and Craft slid into position just outside the charge circle, taking the hit as the whistle blew and the ball fell through the hoop. The official signaled offensive foul, disallowing the hoop, though it appeared from the camera angles shown that Craft’s right heel was not on but hovering above the charge circle, a block by the letter of the law. It was undeniably a break for Ohio State and a huge momentum swing, but for those crying about this being the deciding factor, there were three more possessions following that play, and the way the entire game was officiated lent itself to skepticism. Every single scrappy play it seemed the Buckeyes were being whistled while these type of calls were not being made all season, in or out of conference.
Back to Craft, he split a pair of free throws after a foul attacking the hoop once again to tie the game at 75 with 1:15 left. It was Deshaun Thomas, the much improved defender, who got the ball back for the Buckeyes on a post entry denial that he deflected to Sam Thompson in the corner. It was Craft who took the shot clock down in the game’s final minute and missed from just a half-step inside the arc from straight away. However, the rebound was deflected out of bounds off Iowa State, setting up the game’s final possession with 30 seconds on the clock for OSU.
With everyone in the building assuming the ball was going to touch Thomas’s hands, the Buckeyes ran a similar set to the end game scenario against Michigan State in the Big Ten tourney. With no bigs, Smith Jr. played the screener role, though he didn’t get much of a pick to open anyone up on the left side. Scott came cutting through first just like last time followed by Thomas, but Deshaun was only open for a split second with about four seconds left. After it was clear Thomas wasn’t getting the ball, he sort of threw up his hands in disbelief, as did everyone else in the building. It was Bubo Palo, a reserve guard who only saw six minutes of action today, that made the decision to switch onto LaQuinton Ross as the on-ball screen came, that gave Craft the matchup he wanted with the 6’7″ forward Georges Niang defending. As Craft rose to fire, you could see all of Niang’s momentum carrying him backwards as he was more concerned with the drive than the shot. Craft took his first three point shot of the game, jumping high and leaving out the pronounced hitch that had plagued him on the free throw misses, burying it with just 0.5 seconds remaining. “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,” Craft said following the game. A well-defended inbound later, and Iowa State was going home, sending Ohio State to the Sweet 16. It’s easy to recall Brandon Knight sinking the well-contested game-winner in Craft’s face for Kentucky in their Sweet 16 defeat two years ago. It was nice for Craft to be on the other end of this one.
Craft finished second in scoring with 18 points on 5-of-10 shooting, adding 6 assists and 2 steals while going the 40-minute distance. Ross added 17 points 6-of-10, including 10 in the second half. Thomas led the team with 22 on 8-of-14 shooting, hitting shot after shot to team up with Ross and bust the ISU zone. Once again, it was forcing 16 turnovers and scoring 18 points off of them that gave OSU a real edge. For Iowa State, former Michigan State Spartan Korie Lucious hit 5-of-7 threes and led the team with 19. Will Clyburn added 17 , and McGee had 14 (11 of which came in the ISU comeback). Melvin Ejim posted a double double with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Coach Thad Matta will see a familiar face in his former assistant Sean Miller and his Arizona Wildcats, the six seed and the highest remaining seed out West other than the Buckeyes. They’ll square off in the Staples Center in Los Angeles Thursday night. This marks the fourth straight year the Buckeyes have made it to the Sweet 16 round, and no other program in the nation can boast that accomplishment.
(Photo: Joshua Gunter/The Plain Dealer)