LOS ANGELES — LaQuinton Ross’ shot into Ohio State history Thursday night made him the talk of the basketball country.
That’s how it felt for the Buckeyes forward, who was anointed a future superstar as early as the seventh grade but had endured one detour after another during his time in Columbus.
“All the hard work is paying off in this tournament,” Ross said.
One of the nation’s top recruits, the 6-foot-8 sophomore was ruled an academic non-qualifier in October of his freshman season, returned months later as an end-of-the-bench reserve, and received inconsistent playing time early this season.
Now, Ross is suddenly among the second-seeded Buckeyes’ most indispensable scorers as they prepare for today’s regional final against ninth-seeded Wichita State at Staples Center.
A week after scoring 10 straight points during one second-half juncture of a last-second win over Iowa State, he scored 14 of the Buckeyes’ last 17 points in their 73-70 win over Arizona — including the winning 3-pointer with two seconds left. He finished with 17 points for the second straight game.
“I’m just very, very proud of him,” OSU coach Thad Matta said of Ross, who is averaging 8 points in 16.8 minutes this season. “A lot of times there is a defining moment for a young kid, and he’s not only had [his] today, but he’s had some big baskets [in the postseason].”
Ross said the bad is making the good all the sweeter.
Once ordained by an elite national summer camp as the top seventh-grader in the country, his path to tournament glory was far from what he envisioned.
Ross enrolled at Ohio State before last season, only to learn he had to return to his native Mississippi to make up a core high school course and retake a qualifying test. He then returned with an admitted sense of entitlement.
“What happened last year is he didn’t join us until mid-December,” Matta said. “Those first two months of the season are the most important months in terms of fundamentals. 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.’”
Ross played only 35 minutes all season, and had to answer questions from back home on why he wasn’t playing.
“It was hard for me, especially when you get the same question over and over,” he said. “It was a question I couldn’t answer until I grew up this year and realized my freshman year, I was pretty immature.”
BROKEN PLAN: If not for an unlikely blown switch on a screen, Thursday’s hero may have been a familiar one.
Craft broke down the game-winning sequence — a play that was designed for Ross, the hottest hand on the floor, to slip off an on-ball screen at the top of the key and take the last shot. But in truth, as Craft dribbled out the clock in a tied game for the second straight game, he prepared to again take the final shot. It was only when two defenders mistakenly stayed with Craft and left Ross unguarded on the wing.
“They didn’t communicate very well on the screen,” said Craft, who pushed OSU into the Sweet 16 with the winning 3 against Iowa State. “I thought they were going to switch. They’d switched just about all the way up to that point and I [thought] it was going to be the same scenario as it was last week.”
Instead, he rifled an over-the-shoulder shot to Ross on the wing and shouted, “Knockdown!”
SIBLING RIVALRY: Forget the guys on TBS.
The most entertaining commentary on OSU games these days may come from Craft’s best friend and biggest critic: his sister.
Cait Craft, a freshman on the OSU women’s team, has taken fans along for their roiling postseason run 140 characters at a time — including from the Staples Center stands.
A sampling of her Twitter posts:
On Aaron’s early point-blank misses: “Aaron couldn’t buy a layup today if he wanted.”
On his foul with OSU protecting a late six-point lead: “Aaron that's dumb. You already did your thing. Took time off the clock. What were you thinking?”
Aaron, who is not on Twitter, took the criticism in stride. Maybe because he dishes it out just as strong.
“They’re competitive,” forward Deshaun Thomas said of the Craft siblings. “They have the same mentality. They work hard. When Aaron’s at her games, he’s like, ‘You can’t make that foul! You can't miss those layups!’ It’s just so competitive between them, and that’s what’s great.”