LOS ANGELES — Arizona defended Ohio State’s ball screens and handoffs the same way all night — until the very last one.
That’s how LaQuinton Ross got open for the winning 3-pointer, and that’s what the Wildcats will remember all summer after their impressive season.
Ross hit the tiebreaking 3-pointer on a pass from Aaron Craft with 2 seconds to play, and Ohio State advanced to the West Regional final with a 73-70 victory over Arizona on Thursday night.
The Wildcats were aware Craft had been the Buckeyes’ last-second hero last weekend, and they were determined to prevent it from happening again. Unfortunately, that meant Ross got the ball with a little breathing room — and he drilled a long 3-pointer.
“We switched probably 400 handoffs and ball screens in the game,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “We didn’t switch the last one.
“Whether he made the shot or not, I think we all live with it when it’s challenged and we do what we’re supposed to do,” Miller added. “But part of the reason he had such a great look at the end there was two guys went (the wrong way) when we’d switched every single handoff and ball screen from the opening tip to that one right there.”
The Wildcats (27-8) rallied from a late 10-point deficit, tying it on Mark Lyons’ acrobatic three-point play with 21.8 seconds left, thanks to a foul by Ross.
Arizona couldn’t get off a shot on its last-second inbounds heave, and Lyons greeted Ross in the postgame handshakes with a joking, “I can’t stand you!”
“He’s a good guy,” said Lyons, who knows Ross from summer ball. “He’s a great player, and that’s one of my friends.”
Ohio State’s remarkable reserve scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half for the second-seeded Buckeyes (29-7), who rallied from an early 11-point deficit. With Ross making a series of tough shots capped by that dramatic 3, Ohio State weathered the sixth-seeded Wildcats’ late charge for its 11th consecutive victory since mid-February.
“It feels great, man,” said Ross, a once-ballyhooed recruit who has grown into a bigger role over the past two months. “I think this is what every player grows up looking at on TV, wanting to hit that big shot for an NCAA tournament team. It just feels great right now.”
Lyons’ 23 points included that gutsy three-point play for the Wildcats, who fell just short of their second NCAA regional final in four years. Solomon Hill added 16 points in his native Los Angeles, but the rest of Arizona combined for just 31 points on 10-for-29 shooting.
“I think we did better than some people thought we were supposed to,” Hill said. “We had some lapses in the year, but we picked it up when we were supposed to.”
Deshaun Thomas scored 20 points for Ohio State, and Craft added 13 before ceding Ohio State’s final shot to Ross.
Craft hit an awfully similar 3-pointer against Iowa State last Sunday to send the Buckeyes forward with a 78-75 victory, but Ross didn’t flinch at his turn under pressure in this increasingly magical Ohio State season.
“LaQuinton has really grown in a lot of areas,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “I think the biggest thing he’s done is he’s engaged himself in all the little things, and that’s made him a better basketball player. We’re proud of him.”
On Saturday, Ohio State will face the winner of the late game between underdogs Wichita State and La Salle. As the only top-eight seed left in the West, the Buckeyes will be Atlanta-bound with one more win.
Sam Thompson added 11 points for the Buckeyes, who trailed for nearly the entire first half before pushing ahead and nursing a small lead throughout the final minutes.
After Arizona jumped out to that early 11-point lead, Ohio State gathered its game and mounted a 33-13 surge spanning halftime, taking a 53-43 lead with 11 minutes left. The Wildcats finally answered, but Ross kept the Buckeyes in front with nine consecutive points down the stretch.
Although Miller lamented his team’s coverage mistake on the final possession, he still praised his players.
“I’m proud of our guys’ effort,” Miller said. “We tried hard, and losing in this tournament when you play hard to the end hurts more in the beginning, but I think you leave with a lot of pride knowing you played your heart out.”
The game was the second NCAA tournament meeting between Matta and Miller, whose friendship goes back two decades to their time together at Miami of Ohio and Xavier.
Arizona took the lead on its first basket, a 3-pointer from Lyons in the opening minute, and held it throughout a slow-moving first half featuring 19 fouls. With superior ball movement and scoring balance, the Wildcats eventually pushed the margin to 31-20 on Nick Johnson’s 3-pointer with 7 minutes left in the half.
Ohio State finally awoke when Craft returned to the game after sitting early with two fouls, trimming the margin to 38-34 by halftime.