PORTLAND, Ore.—Before he ran off to get stitches, D’Angelo Russell needed to make one thing clear: He was not talking trash. At least, not to anyone from VCU.
The freshman phenom from Ohio State, a rookie who went from fringe top-20 recruit to likely top-five pick in the NBA draft, was jawing, yes, but it was directed at his coach, Thad Matta.
“Get one,” Matta said when Russell walked to the line with five seconds to go and the Buckeyes up 73-70.
“I’ll get two,” Russell retorted.
Then he did exactly that, icing a 75-72 overtime win for 10th-seeded Ohio State (24-10) in a day upsets reigned. Down went two three seeds and a six, games “where it messed up everybody's bracket,” Russell said. It was the first taste of March Madness for Russell, the 6’5”, 180-pounder with a pretty pull-up from Louisville, and he wanted to do his part. He started rough, missing four of his first five shots, and drawing ire from Matta, coaching in his ninth NCAA tournament with OSU. Sometimes Russell needs “a little prodding” Matta said. But when Russell settles into a rhythm, which he did after that, hitting six of his next seven shots to help Ohio State pull within one, 48-47, with 11:40 to play, he’s hard to stop, as senior Shannon Smith well knows.
“All those other guards have to go through once or twice a year,” Scott said. “I have to go through it every day.”
Russell finished with 28 points, six rebounds and two steals Thursday in front of 13,616 at the Moda Center, pushing Ohio State into the Round of 32 where Matta will meet old friend Sean Miller of Arizona. (“Twenty years ago, he and I were sharing an office together in Miami of Ohio,” Matta said.) In Arizona Russell will meet another likely NBA lottery pick, 6’8”, 243-pound forward Stanley Johnson, who had 22 points and five rebounds in the Wildcats’ 93-72 dispatching of Texas Southern. Before NBA scouts can drool over two of the best freshmen in the country on one floor, though, Russell had to serve as a distraction for the VCU defense.
Russell was credited with just one assist, but he drew so many double teams, other Buckeyes got open with ease. That’s life for VCU (26-10), a program built on a trapping defense. It’s supposed to cause havoc. Occasionally, it causes problems for the Rams. Ohio State’s last two field goals. a three from Keita Bates-Diop to break a 68-68 tie, and a layup from Scott for a 73-70 lead, came when VCU sent a double Russell’s way.
“The main thing we were trying to do was when he came off a hand-off, pick-and-roll situation, put two guys on him,” said VCU coach Shaka Smart. “Ohio State made a couple timely shots out of that trap. So you got to give them credit for that.”
It’s more than just Russell drawing away defenders though. His moxie permeates the Buckeyes’ locker room, as he encourages teammates to embrace the big moment, and the pressure of a big shot. If he can score 10 points in a crucial 16-5 run to end the first half, then why can’t his teammates? “He has confidence in all of us,” said Bates-Diop. “Anyone else can make a shot, anyone else can make a play.”
It helps to have a player who understands angles. Matta sometimes has to get creative with play calls, but says if you can put him in the right spot and “give him half a second, he’s so good at making the right read.”
That was evident early in the second half, when Russell collided with his teammate, Sam Thompson, in front of the Buckeyes’ bench (had he been guarding Thompson, it almost certainly would have been a foul). He took a few steps, readjusted his position and nailed a three to give Ohio State a 38-37 edge with 17:22 to play, the Buckeyes’ first lead since the opening possession. Three possessions later he turned his body just slightly and stepped in front of a VCU inbound pass, then knocked down another long-distance attempt to put OSU up 45-42. In both scores, he played the perfect angle.
He had a bad angle with 5:06 to go on a layup attempt from VCU’s Doug Brooks, who clocked Russell with an elbow on his rise to the basket (Brooks missed the shot). Blood streamed down Russell’s face and it looked like he might be sidelined for a while. Officials huddled at the monitor—their long discussion gave Russell extra time to get fixed—ultimately hitting Brooks with a flagrant one foul. Brooks said in postgame the contact was not intentional.
“I had no clue that it was a flagrant or whatnot,” Russell said. “I just tried to contest it. Five minutes later, I was shooting free throws.”
Trainers taped up the wound, and Russell headed to the line. That time, he got only one. But when the Buckeyes really needed them in overtime, he hit both. As it turns out, that was the punch no one could recover from.