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INDIANAPOLIS — Aaron Craft wanted to play the odds.
The Ohio State basketball team had taken a three-point lead with five seconds left in Thursday’s first-round Big Ten tournament game, setting up the to-foul-or-not-to-foul debate that divides coaches but not mathematicians. Craft laid out out to Buckeyes coach Thad Matta why he should send Purdue to the foul line.
"Aaron told me, standing on the sideline, that Vegas tells you there’s a 60.8 percent better chance [to win by fouling]," Matta said, smiling.
What followed in Ohio State’s 63-61 win proved why this month is rarely a prisoner to logic.
Never mind the odds that made the Buckeyes (24-8) a big favorite over the last-place Boilermakers. Or the odds that made fouling Ronnie Johnson with 2.8 seconds left the safe play.
It was only after OSU withstood what Matta called a "freak March" twist and a potential game-winning buzzer-beater that the Buckeyes extended their league tournament reign.
"It’s good to see us win one of these ugly games," Matta said. "We’ve been in this position before and couldn’t finish them out."
Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr., each missed free throws in the final 15 seconds that set up the wild final sequence. Leading by three, the Buckeyes fouled Johnson in the backcourt to keep the Boilermakers from attempting a game-tying 3. Johnson made the first foul shot and intentionally missed the second, with the rebound caroming out of bounds off of Ohio State with 1.2 seconds left.
Guarding heavy against the lob inside, the Buckeyes left senior guard Terone Johnson open on the wing. But his 3-pointer fell just short as the buzzer blared, and a shred of order was restored to the madness.
Ohio State, which was led by junior forward LaQuinton Ross’ 19 points and 15 rebounds, escaped with its 12th win in its last 13 Big Ten tournament games. The fifth-seeded Buckeyes will play No. 4-seed Nebraska (19-11) at about 2:30 p.m. in today’s quarterfinal.
"It was just good to find a way, even dodging a bullet at the end with that shot they took," said Craft, who had 16 points, five assists, and three steals. "It feels good and hopefully, obviously, we’ll have to play better tomorrow."
A lot better, if you ask Matta.
Purdue (15-17) came in resembling a team out of stamps after mailing in a second straight losing season. Before Purdue lost its seventh consecutive game for the first time since 2005, coach Matt Painter offered a blistering self-evaluation. He called the Boilermakers' shortage of talent and toughness "my fault," adding, "This isn’t a school district. I recruited these guys.”
Yet Thursday, the two sides were near equals. Ohio State was outscored in the paint, shot 1-of-14 from beyond the arc, and trailed 51-47 midway through the second half. The Buckeyes then used a 12-3 run to nudge ahead for good.
Asked if it mattered how you play so long as you advance, Smith said, "That’s a loaded question."
"Absolutely it matters how you play," he said. "You want to win in a fashion that this program is used to."