Aaron Craft hit the game-winning shot for Ohio State in its battle against Iowa State Sunday. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
DAYTON, Ohio -- The hero of Sunday's game played one of his worst four-minute stretches of the season, committing two turnovers, missing the front end of two one-and-ones, and getting blown by on a drive. As Aaron Craft, on his way to playing the full 40 minutes on this Round of 32 encounter with Iowa State, tired and made atypically sloppy mistakes, the Cyclones surged, a 13-point deficit disappearing on what felt like no more than two blinks of an eye. Ohio State's bedrock was crumbling, and so was its season.
But two things became very certain in the aftermath of the Buckeyes' eventual, pulsating, 79-76 win over the Cyclones, earned on the hitchy flick of Craft's wrist from 21 feet away with half a second left. Neither will surprise you. Craft has the mental toughness to forget about mistakes, and his teammates and coaches trust him, absolutely and implicitly, to make the right decision with everything on the line.
"We got all the confidence in the world in Craft," said sophomore wing Sam Thompson. "They put pressure a little bit, they started keying on him, he missed a couple free throws, I think he picked up a foul off the ball. But we know that Craft is a great competitor, a great player, and eventually he's going to pick himself back up."
Craft emerged from his in-game slump just in time to help stave off the rampaging Cyclones, who were gamely making their run without standout Chris Babb, who injured his ankle before halftime and missed the entire second half. His driving layup and-1 with 2:35 left ended a 17-2 Cyclone run. The charge he drew on Iowa State's Will Clyburn -- a highly debatable call given Craft may have been late sliding in and he appeared to have a foot still in the charge circle -- nullified a potential three-point play with 1:41 left and kept the Buckeyes within one. And, after Craft made one of two free throws to tie, he found the game in his hands, in an eerily similar spot to just seconds before.
The Buckeyes had regained possession with a chance for the last shot after Craft had missed an 18-foot jumper after Iowa State's Georges Niang switched onto him. Now he had the ball again, with the right side of the court cleared out, sizing up Iowa State guard Bubu Palo. The Buckeyes ran a high screen, with the intent to have one player curl and then a second run a pindown to help leading scorer Deshaun Thomas pop out to the wing for a potential game-winning shot. But once the Cyclones again switched the screen and Craft found Niang isolated on him on the right side of the top of the key, he waved off the play, sized Niang up and ripped the game-winner.
Afterward, there was almost as much buzz about Craft's atypical foibles as there was about the shot.
"I just tried to do the best job I could of moving on to the next play," Craft said. "Just trying to stay poised and stay focused, you know? All of the things that were going on, things I don't normally do, we were still in the game and that's what it's all about."
One of the things Craft also doesn't normally do is make three-pointers. He was just 29.3 percent for the season entering the game, having made well fewer than one three per game. He hadn't taken one in this contest prior to the final, game-winning attempt. But here's where the trust factor comes in for the Buckeyes. Obviously, it went in, which helps the post-game buy-in, but it legitimately seemed like everyone in the locker room was OK with the shot, regardless of the outcome.
"We wanted the ball in Aaron's hands and wanted him to make a decision," assistant coach Jeff Boals said.
OK, but that couldn't possibly have been what the hope was, right? As hard-nosed and talented as Aaron Craft is, a pull-up three for the win couldn't have been the first choice for that set, with other, more talented scorers on the floor. Several Buckeyes were asked what the pecking order for that play was supposed to be, and Thompson was the closest to fully honest.
He smiled, and with a laugh, said "I guess [he was] option No. 1."