There was a time, certainly last November and maybe as recently as March 10, that LaQuinton Ross was Ohio State’s secret weapon.
The secret is out. Fair trade, considering the Buckeyes’ season lives on.
Ohio State is one game from a second straight Final Four after beating Arizona 73-70 on Thursday night on a 3-pointer by Ross with a little over 2 seconds left. It capped a wild game, sent Ohio State to Saturday’s West Regional final vs. Wichita State and marked the second straight 17-point game for Ross.
The Buckeyes are playing small ball, using a lineup with the 6-foot-8 Ross and 6-foot-7 Deshaun Thomas as their tallest players to get their best five on the floor in key moments. Ross delivered in the biggest on Thursday.
“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,” Ross said. “It just feels great to be here right now.”
Especially considering where he’s been.
A prized prospect from Mississippi who played his final two years of high school ball in New Jersey, academic issues delayed Ross’s arrival at Ohio State last fall, and he played sparingly and almost never in significant games last season. He was still playing sparingly when Big Ten play started in January, and as recently as Feb. 14 had no points in 13 minutes. As recently as the regular-season finale he played just nine minutes.
Ross can score, and for much of the season no one on the Buckeyes’ roster besides Thomas was doing so consistently. But now Ohio State is riding an 11-game win streak because Ross has found a comfort zone and developed a penchant for delivering in big moments. He’s not the only one who has stepped up, but he might be the one with the highest offensive ceiling.
“I think the biggest thing that he’s done is…engaged himself in all of the little things, and that’s made him a better basketball player,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “In terms of practice, bringing an attitude to practice, bringing just an overall mindset that he’s in, (he’s made steps). He’s really become prideful in the little things in his game and it’s really propelled him to be a better basketball player. I’m proud of him.”
Matta and the Buckeyes wouldn’t be where they are without him.
Asked during the preseason if he was a secret weapon or just a weapon, Ross said, “I’d say a secret weapon. Not too many teams know what I can do yet. Right now it’s going to be hard to put me on the scouting report.”
And now, in late March, he’s on every scouting report. The way it used to be.
“Coming off my high school reputation, people probably heard of me,” Ross said in the preseason. “Maybe they’ve seen the YouTube videos. I’m anxious to see what I can do.
“It’s not pressure. I dealt with it in high school. The pressure goes away. You just have to go out there and perform.
“Last year was very frustrating. You come in with so many aspirations and dreams. You think you can help the team win.
“I learned a lot. I got a couple rings. I questioned myself, but it was good for me.”
Before he was the hero Thursday night, Ross was almost the goat. With Ohio State leading by 3 on what became Arizona’s last possession, he fouled Mark Lyons on a drive to the basket with 21 seconds left. Lyons converted the basket and the ensuing free throw to tie the game.
It all set the stage for Ross, who took a pass from Aaron Craft and drilled the winning shot from well behind the 3-point line. It was a moment Ohio State fans will never forget — and one Ross always knew might come.
“To LaQuinton’s credit, he stayed the course,” Matta said. “Hey, I’ve told him all along, ‘You’re a starter on this basketball team .They don’t call your name at the beginning, but you’re going to play starter minutes,’ and he just smiles and does his job.”
Life is good. Ross is a win away from adding another Final Four ring to the collection, one that will mean a lot more to him than last season’s.