DAYTON, Ohio — In the preceding days, the NCAA tournament’s wild West Region had watched its top teams fall, one after another, from top-seeded Gonzaga and No. 3 New Mexico to No. 4 Kansas State and No. 5 Wisconsin.
With the score tied late and the clock winding down in the Buckeyes’ game Sunday against Iowa State, Craft was eerily calm near the top of the key. “I saw him get in his rhythm with each dribble,” Ohio State Coach Thad Matta would later say. The Buckeyes’ guard barely seemed to notice the seconds ticking rapidly off the clock. In one quick motion, he stepped up and fired the three-pointer that would keep Ohio State’s tournament hopes alive.
Craft’s clutch basket with only five-tenths of a second left clinched a 78-75 win, sending the second-seeded Buckeyes to the round of 16 for a fourth straight year. The Big 10 champions are riding a 10-game winning streak into their Thursday night matchup against No. 6 Arizona in Los Angeles.
“Every kid dreams of moments like that,” Craft said. “Just very blessed to be in this situation with this group of guys.”
In the closing moments of Sunday’s game, Craft’s play was marked by a series of hard-to-believe plays, both the good and the bad. He accounted for two turnovers, whiffed on a layup, missed three free throws and was charged with a foul in the final 5 ½ minutes.
“I’m not sure you completely shut that out. I was trying to fight it,” Craft said of his miscues. “The best thing is, we were still in the game. Those mistakes, fortunately, didn’t come back to haunt us.”
Craft also drew a controversial charge on Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim on the Cyclones’ last significant possession, sliding under the forward as he drove to the basket. John Adams, the NCAA’s coordinator of officials, said in a statement that the official “determined [Craft] established legal guarding position.”
When it mattered most, though, no one in the arena doubted that Craft would want to take the final shot. “That’s who he is,” Iowa State Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s been making those shots his entire time at Ohio State.”
After a back-and-forth opening half, the Buckeyes led for most of the second, but the pesky Cyclones refused to go away, despite missing top defender Chris Babb, who sprained an ankle in the first half.
Midway through the half, Ohio State strung together a 13-2 run. LaQuinton Ross hit a pair of three-pointers and accounted for 10 points on his own during the stretch, giving the Buckeyes their largest lead of the game at 65-53.
The Cyclones slowly trimmed the lead, and with less than four minutes remaining, they tied it at 69 when Korie Lucious drove to the hoop and drew a foul as he hit a layup with less than four minutes left on the clock.
After a pair of Buckeyes free throws, Tyrus McGee, the Cyclones’ sixth man, coolly drilled a three-point basket to give Iowa State its first lead since the half’s opening minute. A minute later on the other end of the court, Craft drove to the basket, sinking the bucket and drawing the foul. His free throw at the 2:35 mark put Ohio State back on top, 74-73.
The two teams traded free throws and the score was tied at 75 in the game's the final minute. That’s when Craft found himself alone with the ball, the stage set for the kind of tournament moment children dream about on the playground. Craft grew up barely 100 miles from University of Dayton Arena and many family and friends were among the sea of red in attendance Sunday.
“I was just trying to stay as calm and poised as possible,” Craft said. “The moment’s definitely bigger than me.”
Photos: Scenes from the tournament