LOS ANGELES — Ohio State guard Aaron Craft is a great defensive player and floor leader who survives with an odd-looking hitch in his jump shot.
WSU wanted him to shoot that jumper as much as possible and short-circuit Ohio State’s entire offense. Craft, who took two three-pointers in Ohio State’s first three NCAA games, took seven on Saturday. He missed five. He missed 10 of his 12 shots and scored nine points. The Shockers went under every screen against Craft and backed off him to let him shoot. That kept him from penetrating and breaking down the defense and disrupted Ohio State’s offense.
“We wanted to eliminate a lot of his drives,” WSU guard Malcolm Armstead said. “So we were living with a lot of his jump shots, but still contesting his shots.”
WSU equally frustrated Deshaun Thomas, who averages 19.7 points, for most of the game. Ohio State’s leading scorer scored 23, but shot 8 of 20 from the field and missed all six of his three-pointers. He went 0 for 5 in the first half. WSU junior Cleanthony Early spent most of the game following Thomas.
“They’re definitely one of the more physical teams we’ve played,” Craft said. “They did a good job of packing it in, kind of like Wisconsin. They had a couple shot-blockers, a little better than the ones at Wisconsin, obviously.”
The Buckeyes didn’t score a point off a fast break, largely because WSU handled their pressure defense and didn’t commit turnovers that turned into dunks and layups.
“We didn’t score in transition at all,” Craft said. “That’s been our calling card throughout this run, getting stops and scoring in transition.”
That forced Ohio State to work against WSU’s set defense most of the night. The Shockers made it difficult to find open shots with disciplined runs at shooters, hands high and on balance, and blocking shots when the Buckeyes got into the lane. WSU blocked nine shots, six by Carl Hall.
“When we don’t shoot the ball well, we’re not real productive,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “We couldn’t string together a couple of positive possessions that would enable us to mix it up a little bit. We could never knock a couple down.”
The Shockers needed to challenge Thomas on his three-point shots and did so. Five turnovers also marred Thomas’ night.
“Our guys did a good job of contesting (shots),” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “Forcing tough, contested jump shots. He did score 23 points, but it took him 20 shots to do it.”
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On the floor — The Shockers endured two scary moments in the second half.
Early in the half, Thomas ran over Hall driving to the basket and led with an elbow. Hall hit the floor hard and had to leave the game.
“I was a little concerned,” Marshall said. “I thought Carl took a shot to the chin. I don’t understand the rule, obviously, but I thought that was a Flagrant 1 (foul.). Then I was worried about a concussion because of the way he lurched back and I thought he hit the back of his head on the floor and he was kind of out of it when we went back out there.”
Athletic media relations director Larry Rankin said Hall was cleared of concussion symptoms before he returned.
“I just got an elbow to the jaw,” Hall said. “My jaw kind of locked up.”
Early injured his left ankle with around 11 minutes to play. He dropped to the floor and grabbed the ankle, appearing to be in tremendous pain. He went to the locker room for an X-ray, which came back negative, and returned to the game with 7:41 to play.
“It’s still a little sore, but I’m going to go back and ice and elevate,” he said. “I kind of was stepping back and I don’t know if I stepped on someone’s foot. I thought I had my ankles taped and I’d be fine, but clearly not.”
Early’s fall didn’t worry Marshall quite as much. He’s seen Early dramatize injuries.
“It was like the little boy who cried wolf,” Marshall said. “I heard he was getting X-rays and next thing I know, he’s back in the game.”
Pick on someone else — Ohio State clearly believed it could rattle WSU freshman Fred VanVleet. The Buckeyes pressed when he came in the game and Craft turned up his defense when VanVleet handled the ball, trying to steal the ball.
VanVleet held up fine under the pressure from one of the country’s toughest defenders. He played 24 minutes and committed one turnover. He made 4 of 8 shots, including a crucial one in the lane for a 67-61 lead
“Obviously I’m a freshman, so they’ve got to try stuff like that,” VanVleet said. “Hey, I invite anybody to try it from me.”
Firing away — WSU made 8 of 20 three-pointers to continue its run of good shooting. It is 29 of 80 (36.2 percent) in four NCAA games and 27 of 60 (45 percent) in the past three.
The Shockers entered the tournament making 33.7 percent of their three-pointers.
Keep the ball — Armstead held the game ball during the net-cutting ceremony, during interviews on the court and during the news conference.
Nobody tried to take it. No NCAA rules, apparently, govern possession of the game ball by the regional champions.
Armstead will keep it safe for the trophy case in Koch Arena.
“This goes to the team,” he said. “This isn’t just for me. This is about the team.”
Worth noting — Marshall earned $136,000 for Saturday’s win. His 2012 contract extention calls for $100,000 for reaching the Final Four and $36,000 for each tourney game WSU plays. That’s $340,000 in postseason bonuses. Two more wins would up it to a total of $612,000.… WSU improves to 12-11 in its 10 NCAA appearances. Under Marshall it is 9-2 in two NIT and two NCAA appearances the past four seasons.… It will play either Louisville or Duke in the national semifinals. It has never faced Duke and is 5-19 against Louisville, a former member of the Missouri Valley Conference.… WSU is 2-2 in regional finals, losing in 1964 and 1981 and winning in 1965.… Ohio State made its 14th Elite Eight appearnce..… The teams combined to block 17 shots, 10 in the first half.