DAYTON, Ohio -- With less than 5 seconds left in a tied game, perhaps the best pure scorer in the country came off a pair of screens that did exactly what they were designed to do: get him open.
Deshaun Thomas called for the ball -- screamed for it, waved his hands high above the 6-foot-7 inch frame that had made him essentially unguardable for the first 39 minutes and 55 seconds of his team's second-round NCAA tournament thriller -- but the pass never came.
Instead, a 6-foot-2 point guard -- who spent most of the second half turning the ball over and missing key free throws, who was being guarded by the opposing team's tallest player, who hadn't attempted a 3-pointer all afternoon and averages just 29.3 percent from beyond the arc this season -- looked him off.
To say Aaron Craft faced pressure in the final seconds of Ohio State's 78-75 win over Iowa State Sunday is to state the incredibly obvious, but that pressure wouldn't have come solely from Buckeyes fans, who would have surely blamed him for a heartbreaking second-round upset loss. Craft would have had one unhappy teammate, too.
"I don't think I would have been angry," Thomas said. "I think I would have said, 'OK, let's go out and win the overtime, let's win the next five minutes.'"
"Oh, man -- furious," point guard Lenzelle Smith said, laughing. "He would have been furious."
Fortunately for him, and fortunately for the Buckeyes, what looked like another in a series of uncharacteristically bad decisions ended up the best and most important play of Craft's career -- saving Ohio State from becoming just the latest upset victim in a West Region that has already claimed the No. 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7 seeds.
Only Craft can really say what he was feeling in that moment, and he wouldn't quite admit to being nervous. When asked about whether he had "butterflies," he admitted only to "probably a little" before promptly cutting himself off.
But if he was nervous, he had good reason. Craft's second half had been the type of cold-sweat nightmare that keeps players up at night, particularly the stretch between the 5:35 and 3:08 marks, when Craft, in sequence, committed a turnover, missed a layup, missed two consecutive one-and-one front ends and committed yet another turnover. In the meantime, as Iowa State scorched its typical assortment of 3s and free throws, Ohio State's 69-56 lead dwindled to a 72-71 deficit. If 12,000 people gulping in unison makes a sound, it filled UD Arena.
"You just try to move on to the next play," Craft said.
For Craft, the next play was a driving layup and a foul, followed shortly thereafter by a drawn charge that immediately looked questionable (at best) and required a statement from NCAA National Coordinator of Men's Basketball Officiating John Adams just minutes after the game. ("I spoke with the official, and he determined the defender established legal guarding position outside the restricted area prior to the offensive player leaving the floor to start his shot. When asked, the official said he did not see the defender’s foot over the restricted area line. By rule, this is not a reviewable play.")
That pivotal call created the conditions for Craft's indelible March Madness moment. But so did coach Thad Matta with his team's "play-forward" attitude, which takes the get-the-next-play cliché to an almost spiritual level.
"I didn't [think] anything about the play behind [me]," Craft said.
"Good players at this level, you can't let stuff like that affect you," Smith said. "You have to move on. You have to have a short-term memory.
"Aaron, the player that he is, he knew that shot was going in before he shot it, because he told himself it was going in. Then he stepped up and knocked it down."