LOS ANGELES -- They claim it was a coincidence. When Ohio State first arrived at their Staples Center locker room Wednesday for this week's West regional, the players were free to claim whichever locker stall they saw fit. Only later would Aaron Craft find out he'd taken the Lakers locker normally occupied by Steve Nash, while LaQuinton Ross would soon be getting dressed in the same spot as Kobe Bryant.
"Before we got here, I called dibs on it," Ross joked about Bryant's locker.
Thursday night in the Sweet 16 against sixth seed Arizona, Ross played the clutch role of Bryant to perfection, with Craft making a Nash-in-his-prime-caliber assist. In its second straight tourney heart-stopper -- tie game, millions of peoples' brackets hanging on his next move -- Craft once again dribbled down the clock. Last week against Iowa State, the Buckeyes' point guard drained the game-winning three-pointer. Against the Wildcats, however, Craft saw the double team coming and whipped the ball to his teammate on the left wing. Ross drained the shot with two seconds left and Ohio State advanced to the Elite Eight with a 73-70 win.
Craft, a junior, is a household name by now, one of the most recognizable faces in the tournament. To this point, Ross, a sophomore who doesn't even start for the Buckeyes, was known primarily by Ohio State fans and recruitniks. That's about to change following consecutive 17-point performances and that game-winning dagger.
"Q -- his confidence is on fire," said Buckeyes forward Sam Thompson.
The 6-foot-7 Ross, once the top-rated player nationally in his high-school class, played just 35 minutes as a freshman last season. Declared an academic non-qualifier shortly before the season, he did not join the team until December and played sparingly from there. All the while, he "rebelled," said teammates.
"LaQuinton didn't want to hear what another guy was telling him especially if he thought he was better than him, which he usually was," said guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. "We told him you kind of have to pay your dues."
Which Ross did for much of this season, coming off the bench, playing 15 to 20 minutes a game, and providing an occasional offensive spark. But he was far from a reliable scorer on a team led by stars DeShaun Thomas, Craft, Smith and others.
For whatever reason, however, the big-time scorer those recruiting analysts saw all the way back in the eighth grade has decided to make his presence felt in this tournament. Against the Cyclones in the Round of 32, he drained a trio of threes and scored 10-straight Buckeyes points during one juncture, all setting up Craft's last-second heroics. Against Arizona, Ross set the stage for his own theatrics.
The Wildcats, buoyed in part by a huge West Coast fan contingent, played above themselves in the first half, shooting 50 percent and hitting an uncharacteristic 5-of-8 three-pointers. They led by as much as 11. Thomas almost single-handedly kept the Buckeyes in the game, scoring 16 points and hitting several momentum-stopping shots, including a key three-pointer that cut the deficit to 38-34 at halftime.
Ohio State came out and played much better defense after halftime, piecing together an eventual 13-0 run to claim some control. But this time it wasn't Thomas hitting the big shots at the other end. Numerous Buckeyes -- Thompson, Smith, Shannon Scott -- all contributed, but Ross was the most important.
Late in the game, as Arizona continued to keep things tight, Ross answered a Mark Lyons three that cut it to 60-57 with 6:31 left by knocking down a three of his own. When the Wildcats' Kevin Parrom scored on the other end, Ross came back with a driving layup to again keep them at bay. Another layup with 1:33 remaining made it 69-63 Ohio State.
But a missed free throw and layup by Craft helped the Wildcats get one last gasp. And then came Ross' own mistake. For a player who's career to date has been marked by maddening ups and downs and often lackluster defense, Ross committed an ultimate no-no with 21 seconds left. He fouled Lyons on a made layup, allowing the Arizona guard to make a game-tying free throw.
"I was yelling at him not to foul," said Craft. "But I think he did it on purpose."
Ross seemed visibly crushed during Ohio State's ensuing timeout and huddle, requiring an impromptu pep talk from teammates. "I told him, we're going to need you," said Smith.
Smith also said Ross' teammates used to barely trust him with the game on the line that had the ensuing sequence taken place, say, a year earlier, Smith "probably would have stolen the ball from him." On this night, however, "I could have walked to the locker room when he took that shot," said Smith, since he knew it was going in.
Ross was remarkably nonchalant afterward for a guy who just hit the biggest shot of his career. And in doing so, reigniting a career that prior to last weekend had contained few of the highlights predicted for him as a five-star recruit. But he was certainly aware of the significance of the moment.
"Coming in my freshman year, I think I was kind of immature as far as my thinking, thinking, 'Why am I not playing? Why am I not doing this?'" Ross said. "I think everything paid off. All the hard work is paying off in this tournament."
Ross might not be an official starter, but his finishes the past two games are the single biggest reason the Buckeyes are a win away from the Final Four.