Two straight games. Two shot clocks turned off with a tie game and the ball in the Buckeyes’ hands. Sean Miller’s Arizona Wildcats weren’t going to give Aaron Craft another clean look at a game-winning jumpshot, and Deshaun Thomas had a defender glued on him in the corner. Without calling a timeout, Thad Matta called a Craft-LaQuinton Ross pick and roll from the sideline. When both defenders collapsed on Craft, the Buckeye point made the right read once again, kicking it to Ross, who buried a NBA-range three ball to give the Buckeyes the lead with two seconds remaining and eventually the win.
It capped off a 14-point second half for Ross, and the sophomore who got a late start as a freshman and next to nothing in terms of playing time last year saved his team for the second straight game. The Buckeyes won 76-73, and they’re going to their second straight Elite 8 after the win in Los Angeles last night. For the second straight game, however, they faced plenty of adversity.
As the game tipped, it was clear why Arizona was a Top 10 team at the start of the season. They can shoot the three, they’re athletic, and they can rebound and cause problems with their length. Arizona drilled its first two three pointers and 8 of its first 14 shots as they were feeling confident on offense and active on defense with Ohio State playing quite timid. The Wildcats led by as many as 11 at 33-22, and the Buckeyes were a bucket or two away from being in serious trouble. To cap it off, the officiating crew was another tight crew, and the Buckeyes were once again being whistled for calls they’ve haven’t endured all season, in or out of conference. An absurd sixteen fouls were called in the first 12 minutes of this game, and Aaron Craft picked his second up with 9:32 remaining in the first half. Starters Solomon Hill and Kaleb Tarczewski each picked up two for the Wildcats as well, and Hill sat for over nine minutes in the first as a result. For the Buckeyes, Matta once again had no choice with one of his points in foul trouble, he had to bring him back in. And when he did at the 6:23 mark, it sparked a 12-5 run to end the first. With that, the Buckeyes had weathered the storm admirably. Having played a very mediocre first half with the exception of Deshaun Thomas (16 points, 6-of-11 shooting) and seeing Arizona shoot 50% including 5-of-8 on three pointers, the Buckeyes were down only four points.
As assistant coach Jeff Boals said via Twitter last night, this game was won in the first several minutes after halftime. In those minutes, OSU came storming out of the gate with a 10-0 run that covered the first five and a half minutes, erasing their deficit. Lenzelle Smith Jr. attacked the hoop twice in that stretch, and his six points in a span of about 7 minutes were critical from a guy who’s been off his game for most of the tournament season. Just as important, Smith Jr. got back to one of the things he does best for this team, grabbing 8 rebounds.
Rebounding was identified as a critical issue for the Bucks heading into this one, as they were decimated by Iowa State on the glass last weekend due to their outside threat and long rebounds off misses. However, the team answered the call to be tougher on the glass. OSU in fact out-rebounded the ‘Cats 32-30, and they cleaned up their defensive rebounding by closing out more under control on shooters. Amir Williams has been the victim of much ridicule this year for his lack of toughness at times, and it’s been for the most part well-deserved. Yet, when they needed it most, Williams made a couple of winning plays during that run that sustained Ohio State, including an offensive putback, two rebounds, a steal from the post, and a punishing blocked shot. It won’t stand out in the box score, but Smith Jr. and Williams, two of the most inconsistent, slumping players contributed on this night.
The coaching matchup between former colleagues Thad Matta and Sean Miller was hyped, and it lived up to it. Miller’s certainly one of the best young coaches in the game, and he managed his team as best he could through the Buckeye onslaught. Miller used three of his four remaining timeouts during OSU’s early second half run. It worked, as the Wildcats inched closer after trailing by 10 with 11 minutes remaining. ‘Zona worked its way back primarily due to their versatile forward Solomon Hill. Hill scored nine straight points for his team following that third timeout used by Miller, and the Buckeyes were struggling to cover him 1-on-1, with Sam Thompson giving up height and size in that matchup.
Despite the presence of a 7-footer and Hill having a size advantage on Thompson, the Bucks stuck to their small ball lineup for 17 minutes in this game, opting for it all throughout crunch time once more. One of the mismatches they were able to create was LaQuinton Ross against Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett. Ross stretched the defense with his outside shooting and got to the foul line effectively in the contest. In just 18 minutes, Ross scored 17 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including a perfect 2-of-2 from three point range and 5-of-5 from the line. All of that drum-beating all year long, the dead horse pulverized into the ground from yours truly about Ross needing more playing time. THIS is why. You’ve seen it on the biggest stage now. Ross makes this Buckeye team a title contender when he’s on, and he’s come such a long way in toughness, defensive skills, and unselfishness. This kid is going to be special, and he’s coming on strong at the exact right time. Matta added, “So when he got here, he was a little behind. I told him at one point, look, I can’t hold tryouts during the Big Ten. The league is too good. To his credit, he kept working. He got better. Had a great offseason. Like I said, I’m just very, very proud of him. A lot of times there is a defining moment for a young kid, and he’s had not only today, but he’s had some big baskets.”
The defense was the unsung hero of the second half surge for Ohio State. In addition to the five and a half minute Arizona scoring drought to start the half, Ohio State held the ‘Cats to 39% shooting in the second half, including 1-of-10 from three point range. The quality of shots on Arizona’s part just wasn’t there in the second half with the exception of Solomon Hill. With the Bucks’ swarming defense, they eventually figured out how to double Hill when he got into the post while still recovering to shooters. This is where Thomas and Ross have come so far in recent weeks, forming a cohesive unit with already strong defenders Craft, Scott, Smith Jr., and Thompson to forge one dynamic defensive squad.
OSU took a 6-point lead into the Under-4 timeout, but Arizona wasn’t done just yet. Nick Johnson had a layup to cut the lead to just four, and then the pressure came from the Wildcats. The ball got to LaQuinton Ross in the corner. With a trap closing in, Craft directed the young forward to get the ball up the sideline. Instead, Ross did one better and took it all the way to the hoop, swooping in with an up and under lay-in. After Craft picked up his fourth foul with 1:20 remaining, two Lyons free throws cut it back to four. Craft then split a pair of free throws, while Lyons attacked Craft on the way to the hoop who had to back off to avoid a fifth foul.
Just as in the last game, Craft’s second to last possession did not go as planned, with him draining the clock, driving, and missing a layup. Lyons, the Xavier transfer senior, took the ball coast-to-coast, finishing with an and-one on a phantom foul that was charged to Ross. The free throw tied it up at 70 and set the stage for another “win or go to OT” scenario for Ohio State.
After the made free throw with 21.8 seconds left, the Bucks chose not to call a timeout with Chris Jent and Thad Matta instead getting the players set on the fly with the ball in Craft’s hands out top. With the lengthy defender Johnson on Craft, Jerrett was covering Ross. With about six seconds left, Ross came from the center of the paint and started to set a pick to the right for Craft. Instead, however, he slipped the pick before getting to Johnson, and Jerrett overplayed for the Craft drive behind Johnson. Ross faded to the left wing, and as soon Jerrett got out of position on Ross, the Buckeye point made the perfect read once again, kicking it to Ross who buried the deep ball with 2.1 seconds left. Despite the impromptu timeout awarded to Arizona for a clock review when they had none, Lenzelle Smith Jr. was able to get his hands on the desperation heave, and Craft launched it as the clock expired. Great coaching, a heady point guard who doesn’t get rattled, a star in Thomas who doesn’t complain about not getting the ball in two straight end-game scenarios, and a clutch player like Ross burying the shot all made it possible. “I like to credit my coaches for the play. It was similar to the play we ran last game. We like to get the big that’s pick-and-roll. It so happened they messed up on the switch right there, and I was able to knock down the shot,” Ross said afterwards.
Next up, the Buckeyes will face the ninth-seed Wichita State Shockers out of the Missouri Valley Conference. After beating Gonzaga last week, we know what the Shockers are capable of, but if the Bucks can navigate through Wichita State, they will packing their bags for the Final Four in back-to-back years.
When asked about what keeps the Buckeyes making big plays, Deshaun Thomas said of his guys, “Toughness. We don’t give up. We show heart. We stand together as a team, and we fight. We fight together, and it’s just all toughness with me.”
(Photo: Joshua Gunter/The Plain Dealer)