Among the Elite: ‘Q’ answers call to send Buckeyes to Elite 8
LOS ANGELES – For at least the first 20 minutes of play, the defects that often doomed Ohio State during a rocky midseason stretch in February seemed to show in glimpses Thursday night at the Staples Center.
In their Sweet 16 bout against Arizona, the Buckeyes veered away from the type of play that had gotten them to Los Angeles and leaned on the skill of junior forward Deshaun Thomas, the team’s and Big Ten’s leading scorer.
Enter LaQuinton Ross, whose swift flick of the wrist likely made him the most-talked about person in Columbus.
Thanks to the sophomore forward’s 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds to play, OSU won the game, 73-70, and will play in the Elite 8 for the second consecutive year.
“This is what every player grows up looking at on TV and wants to hit that big shot, wants to win the game and hit the big shot in the NCAA Tournament or the NBA,” Ross said. “It just feels great to be here right now.”
It was the second game in a row a late 3-pointer has lifted the Buckeyes.
Just last week, junior guard Aaron Craft, OSU’s defensive heart and soul (and a 30 percent 3-point shooter) buried a game-winning shot en route to 18 points, vaulting the Buckeyes past Iowa State in Dayton Sunday.
In some ways, Thursday felt like deja vu.
But for parts of the first half, even being in the position to win seemed unlikely.
While OSU opened the game’s scoring with a basket from Thomas, they seemed anxious and disorganized on both ends of the court.
“We started off slow. Guys were being selfish, guys were hugged up on their man, not helping each other out, getting into gaps and tagging,” said Thomas, who finished the night with a game-high 20 points. “I don’t know what it was. It was probably just the heat of the moment. Everybody was just too excited.”
Quickly, Arizona coach Sean Miller and the Wildcats took advantage.
After falling the victim to an early, furious 10-2 run, the Buckeyes fell behind, 10-4, with 15:46 to play in the period.
Behind Arizona senior guard Mark Lyons and his 10 first-half points, the Wildcats shot 50 percent from the field and, in particular, used a lethal 3-point assault to stave off a Buckeye squad that struggled to find momentum.
Thomas, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, became a lone pillar for stability as his teammates’ jump shots clanked off the iron and their layups clunked off the backboard.
But despite Arizona sinking 63 percent of shots from behind the arc, OSU coach Thad Matta and his crew trotted into halftime down just 38-34, thanks to Thomas and his 16-point outburst in the first period.
Having been outscored, outshot and perhaps generally outplayed in the first half against the Wildcats, Thomas said Matta had a singular and simple message.
“Coach said do what we do at halftime,” he said, “and that’s what we did.”
Craft relayed a similar message.
“Our biggest focus was we needed to play better defense,” Craft said. “We gave up 38 points in a half and we haven’t done that too often this year. We got stops and we got easy buckets in transition and that’s where we’re at our best. It really kind of fuels our offense. Layups, dunks, mismatches, scramble situations.”
It didn’t take long for OSU to pick up its level of play.
The Buckeyes roared out of the gates on a 10-0 run thanks to sophomore forward Sam Thompson, junior guards Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Craft and even sophomore center Amir Williams – who swatted away a shot on one end of the floor before snatching a rebound over two defenders and going up for the jam on the other.
Conversely, in that span, Arizona found scoring to be a more troubling endeavor than it was in the first half.
In fact, the Wildcats wouldn’t make a basket until freshman forward Brandon Ashley connected on a short jumper a the 14:40 mark of the second.
The struggles didn’t end there, either, as Arizona could only muster five points the first nine minutes of the second period and trailed the Buckeyes by as many as 10 after leading all but 33 seconds in the first half.
The Wildcats responded, cutting the OSU lead to 60-57 after Lyons buried a trey with 6:33 to play.
With 21.8 seconds to play, Lyons tied the game at 70 after making a driving layup despite being fouled, then making the ensuing free throw.
It was not enough to overcome Ross – the Buckeyes’ hero – who surged late to score 14 of his 17 total points in the game’s final eight minutes.
The Buckeyes have had a revolving door of second scoring options that have played sidekicks to Thomas’ usually steady production.
And while his aid came late, Smith said the flavor-of-the-day approach to who will compliment Thomas is a blessing rather than a curse.
“That’s such a good thing about this team, you never know who’s gonna step up and be that guy in next game,” he said. “It’s been a knock on us all year. We don’t have offense, you know, we don’t have that second scorer. Well, I mean, I can’t tell at this point, we’re finding guys to make shots.”
The Buckeyes (29-7) are set to play No. 9 seed Wichita State Saturday in the Elite 8 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles at 7:05 p.m.