Fortunate Buckeyes advance to Los Angeles
DAYTON, Ohio — The season comes down to a few possessions, the ball hangs on the rim as brackets hang in the balance, and one shot can extend careers for one side and end them on the other.
It's March. It's the NCAA tournament.
The Ohio State Buckeyes are extremely lucky to be moving on, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
An athletic and hot-shooting Iowa State team traded baskets and big runs with the Buckeyes on Sunday afternoon at the University of Dayton Arena. It came down to one final shot, a wild last two minutes culminating with Aaron Craft dribbling out the clock and breaking a tie on a rainbow 3-pointer with .5 seconds left.
Craft knew it was good as soon as it left his hand. It was the first time down the stretch anyone involved with the Buckeyes had been able to smile.
"Pretty good timing," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
In one that could have gone either way, Ohio State made extended surges early and got the bounces and whistles late. Craft twice missed front ends of 1-and-1s at the free-throw line and also committed a turnover down the stretch, but he made another of the game's most important plays with 1:41 to go when he slid under Iowa State's Will Clyburn and the baseline official called it a charge.
The Cyclones had a 75-74 lead and the momentum at the time. It's impossible to say definitively that one questionable call determined anything; there was still a lot of game left.
It's tough to deny that it changed everything.
If that charge call didn't negate Clyburn's basket, Iowa State would have led by 3. Had it been called a block — or had the contact to Clyburn's shooting arm before the charge been called — Iowa State would have been at the line with a chance to make the lead 4 points and make Ohio State scramble. Instead, Iowa State didn't get another shot off.
By the end, Craft was the hero twice over. Immediately after his winning shot, he was imploring his celebrating teammates to get back on defense.
"Just one more reason we love Aaron Craft so much," Ohio State guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said.
A LaQuinton Ross 3-pointer with 8:21 to go gave Ohio State its largest lead of the day at 65-53. A little more than four minutes later, the game was tied. In the final 3:53 there were three ties, four lead changes and neither team led by more than two points.
Not a single detailed scouting report on Ohio State would indicate that Deshaun Thomas would make a quick-reaction defensive play to set up Ohio State for two final possessions, the first ending with Iowa State failing to secure a rebound off a Craft miss and the second ending with a bomb after Craft had dribbled out the last 28 seconds.
The scouting reports would pretty much say to let Craft shoot that last shot, too. The scouting reports don't account for magic, and that's what Craft has been during this 10-game Ohio State win streak.
With good vibes and good luck, extending it by four doesn't seem out of the question.
"I was in a good situation," Craft said of the final shot. "If I miss, we still go to overtime. It's not as big of a pressure situation. Obviously, it's up there. My teammates believed in me. I'm just glad I could come through for them."
Iowa State lost arguably its best defender, Chris Babb, to a late first-half ankle injury. The Cyclones went with five players for almost the entire second half but kept making 3-pointers, finishing 12-for-25. On the other side, Ohio State is still getting good play to match its good luck. When Thomas scores 22, Craft scores 18 and Ross gets 17, the Buckeyes aren't going to lose very often.
Now, Ohio State heads to Los Angeles for the West Regional. Two Thursday night games at the Staples Center will feature No. 2 seed Ohio State vs. No. 6 seed Arizona, and No. 9 seed Wichita State vs. either No. 12 seed Ole Miss or No. 13 seed La Salle, which had to start the tournament here in Dayton, at the First Four.
Ohio State is two wins away from getting back to its second consecutive Final Four. It couldn't get there in 2011 as the No. 1 overall seed, when the Buckeyes were as close to complete as maybe any college basketball team has been in five years. That night in Newark, N.J., Kentucky played really well.
And, in the end, luck was on Brandon Knight's side. Luck matters in any path to the Final Four.
It wasn't all luck Sunday. Iowa State turned the ball over with 58 seconds left. Three minutes before the charge call, Shannon Scott was called for a very questionable foul while pursuing a loose ball at midcourt. Craft had deflected a pass, and Craft and Scott and two Iowa State players ended up in a tussle on the floor. If a foul hadn't been called, Ohio State might have been shooting a layup. Because it was, Clyburn hit two free throws to extend the Cyclones run.
As the games get bigger, the margin gets slimmer. Credit Ohio State for sticking with its small-ball lineup, for continuing to fight. Sometimes, you make your own breaks. At this time of year, you apologize for none of them.
One moment. One whistle. One miss. One miracle 3-pointer to cap not only a second-straight head-scratching possession, but a game that will remembered for a long, long time — one that allows Ohio State to keep dancing.
If you can't be both lucky and great, there's nothing wrong with leaning towards lucky.
Not when it helps you March on.