When Aaron Craft missed three important free throws in the final five minutes of Sunday's round of 32 matchup with Iowa State, there was concern on Ohio State bench that the Buckeyes' standout point guard might be tiring.
"Coaches were telling me he's exhausted," Ohio State coach Thad Matta told CBS after the game. "But he's too tough to be tired."
Craft validated his coach's faith in him by sinking the biggest shot of Ohio State's season on the Buckeyes' final possession.
Having utilized a ball screen to get 6-foot-7 Georges Niang switched onto him, Craft then noticed that the Iowa State forward was conceding a jump shot and playing him to take away the drive. Craft took advantage of the space, pulled up and buried a clutch tie-breaking 3-pointer with 0.5 seconds to go from the right of the top of the key, sending the Buckeyes to the Sweet 16 with a 78-75 victory.
Not only did Craft finish with 18 points and six assists, he also scored Ohio State's final seven points of the game. As if that weren't enough, Craft also made the game's biggest defensive play, sliding over to draw a highly questionable charging call on Iowa State's Will Clyburn that negated a potential Cyclones 3-point play with less than two minutes remaining in the game.
Craft's heroics helped Ohio State become the lone top-five seed to advance to the West Regional in Los Angeles next week.
With WCC champ Gonzaga, Mountain West champ New Mexico and Big 12 co-champ Kansas State all sent home early, Ohio State becomes a clear-cut favorite to return to the Final Four for a second straight year. The Buckeyes will face sixth-seeded Arizona in the marquee semifinal with ninth-seeded Wichita State facing either 12th-seeded Ole Miss or 13th-seeded La Salle in the other.
Ohio State being in such a favorable position seemed unlikely as recently as a month ago when the Buckeyes were still struggling to find secondary scorers to complement Deshaun Thomas. Since then, other scoring options have begun to emerge more consistently and Ohio State has continued to play consistently strong defense, contributing to a 10-game win streak and last weekend's Big Ten tournament title.
Thomas had his usual 22 points on Sunday and Craft contributed on both ends of the floor, but it was LaQuinton Ross who was the unsung hero. The talented but enigmatic Ross scored 17 points off the bench to help Ohio State overcome a 3-point barrage from the Cyclones.
Prior to Ohio State's victory, the Big Ten had six teams still alive in the NCAA tournament and Michigan and Michigan State already in the Sweet 16. Craft's huge last-second shot ensured Ohio State will join them.
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