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DAYTON — Before Aaron Craft could hit the biggest shot of Ohio State’s season, he needed to make the boldest call of his life.
One of the nation’s most unbending defenders waved off one of its most stubborn scorers.
The result was a scarlet-soaked Dayton Arena that shook with joy over the latest wild chapter in the NCAA tournament’s most anarchic region.
With a buzzer-beating shot that will endure for the ages at Ohio State, Craft led the Buckeyes to a 78-75 victory over 10th-seeded Iowa State and into the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight season.
In a classic goat-to-hero redemption, the junior Findlay native played a key role in a collapse that turned a 13-point OSU lead with less than six minutes left into a one-point deficit, then dropped in to save the Buckeyes (28-7) when it mattered most.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta called a final play to find star forward Deshaun Thomas — who led the Big Ten in scoring this season and finished with a game-high 22 points — for the last shot in a tied game. But when Craft noticed the Cyclones had mistakenly switched slow-footed 6-foot-7 forward Georges Niang on to him, the plan changed.
Craft wanted this moment. Maybe even needed it.
"I could tell you, I was going to feel pretty bad if we ended up losing this game," said Craft, who had 18 points and six assists.
So the point guard waved off Thomas and positioned himself either for overtime or a place in OSU lore, then swished in an arcing 3-pointer over Niang — a shot from the top of the key with 0.5 seconds left that was the stuff of backyard dreams.
"I’m a defensive guy, so I was in the backyard [dreaming of] three, two, one, and taking a charge," Craft said with a smile. "Every kid dreams of moments like that. I’m just very blessed to be in this situation."
Matta said Craft made a "good read," and Thomas could not disagree.
"Freshman year, I probably would have gotten mad," he said. "Last year, I probably would have gotten mad. But that’s me growing up. I was like, ‘He’s got it.’"
Just like that, Craft and his teammates could again dream big.
In a lawless region now trademarked as the Wild Wild West — No. 1 Gonzaga’s loss to Wichita State a night earlier left OSU as the only top-5 seed remaining — the second-seeded Buckeyes would leave Dayton as the latest giant felled or the runaway favorite to raid the Final Four.
Now, this is how the West can be won: Ohio State plays sixth-seeded Arizona in a regional semifinal Thursday in Los Angeles, with the winner playing a seed no higher than No. 9 Wichita State in the Elite Eight.
That’s the opportunity OSU nearly missed as its fears about Iowa State manifested with one deep ball after another. The nation’s leader in 3-pointers hit 12 of 25 shots from beyond the arc, which kept the game tight for the first 30 minutes, then helped the Cyclones wipe out a 69-56 OSU lead with 5:50 remaining.
Iowa State answered with a 13-0 run and took a 72-71 lead on a 3-pointer by Tyrus McGee with 3:24 remaining. The Buckeyes were crumbling, with even the normally reliable Craft unable to detour momentum. In one two-minute stretch, he committed a turnover and missed the front end of back-to-back one-and-one foul shot opportunities.
Yet this only made Craft’s desire to succeed burn deeper.
"Any time he gets scored on or does something wrong on the offenseive end, his mentality is to get it back," assistant coach Jeff Boals said afterward.
"He’s got a lot of pride. He wants the ball in his hand at the end."
So Craft tied the game at 73 with a driving score.
And after making only two of four free throws that left the score even at 75, he embraced the pressure of a season in the balance when a steal by Thomas with 58 seconds left set up one long final OSU possession.
No matter that Craft shot only 29 percent from beyond the arc this season. Or that he missed a jumper that caromed off Iowa State and out of bounds with 29 seconds left. With Thomas the focus of Iowa State’s defense in the dying seconds, this was his time.
"I saw him look back," Matta said, "and he knew the big kid was on him. I saw him get in his rhythm with each dribble. The kid wasn’t pushing up."
He added: "I’ll live with any decision that kid makes. A big-time shot from a big-time kid."
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.