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.
Ohio State's Aaron Craft made sure there would be no similar upset Sunday at Dayton Arena. The guard's clutch three-pointer with only a half-second left clinched a 78-75 win over Iowa State, sending the No. 2 Buckeyes to the Sweet 16 for a fourth straight year.
The Big 10 champs will take a 10-game winning streak into their Thursday matchup against No. 6 Arizona in Los Angeles.
With the score tied and the clock winding down 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. With a forward guarding him, the junior saw a mismatch. In one quick motion, he stepped up and fired the winning three.
"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, the point guard's play was marked by a series of hard-to-believe plays, both the good and the bad. Craft accounted for two turnovers, whiffed on a layup, missed three free throws and was charged with a foul in the final 5:30.
He also drew a controversial charge on 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." But in an interview with CBS afterward, Adams essentially said that the official made an incorrect call.
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."
Ohio State took a 65-53 lead in the second half, but the pesky Cyclones refused to go away, despite missing its top defender, Chris Babb, who suffered a sprained ankle in the first half.
Tyrus McGee coolly drilled a three-point basket - the Cyclones' specialty - to put Iowa State ahead 72-71 with 3:35 left. A minute later, Ohio State retook the lead 74-73 on a driving Craft bucket and free throw.
The two teams traded free throws and the score was tied at 75-75 in the game's final minute. That's when Craft found himself alone with the ball, the stage set for the kind of tournament moment children dream about. Craft grew up barely 100 miles from Dayton Arena, and many family and friends were among the sea of red in attendance.
"I was just trying to stay as calm and poised as possible," he said. "The moment's definitely bigger than me."
The play was designed for a teammate, but when Craft noticed the Cyclones assigned their 6-foot-7 forward Georges Niang to guard him, the Buckeyes' 6-foot-2 guard made the snap decision to take advantage of the mismatch.
"It was tremendous basketball play," Matta said. "He made a great read."
Until that moment, Craft hadn't attempted a single three-pointer, as he'd spent much of the afternoon penetrating, shooting 5 of 10 from the field. That's part of the reason Hoiberg sent his big man to help control the perimeter.
"We wanted to keep them out of the paint," the Cyclones coach said. "We wanted them to take a tough, contested jump shot."
Craft finished the game with 18 points and six assists. DeShaun Thomas led the Buckeyes with 22 points and five rebounds. Providing a spark off the bench, Ross finished with 17 for Ohio State in a game that saw 16 lead changes.
Korie Lucious led Iowa State with 19 points.
"That was as about as high-powered of a college basketball game as you can have," Matta said.
And it included a finish that no Buckeyes fan, player or coach will soon forget.