Ohio State was engulfed in a typical battle with Wisconsin in Sunday’s Big Ten tournament championship game, the slow, yet physical type of game that makes every point matter that much more.
When the Badgers are most effective, they’re making the opponent look bad. Ohio State was winning 45-43 with only 5:30 separating it from its third conference tournament crown in four years, but Wisconsin was successful in making it look ugly.
Thad Matta knew what to expect from the Badgers – they’ve done this to his team plenty of times – but that didn’t make it less frustrating for the head coach as he looked up at the scoreboard and saw the low point total.
During a timeout, Matta thought to himself – “Can anyone make a shot?” Then he looked at his team in the huddle and urged somebody – anybody – to make a play.
LaQuiton Ross was listening.
“I have been ready to be a big part of this team and I think I stepped up when I got my chance,” Ross said. “When coach talked about somebody making a play in the huddle, man, I just thought it could be me.”
Ross accounted for the next four points to extend Ohio State’s lead to 47-41 with 2:41 remaining in the contest, creating much-needed separation for a Buckeyes team desperate to claim some hardware heading into the NCAA Tournament.
The slow-paced nature of the game made what would otherwise be a slim six-point lead insurmountable. Wisconsin managed only two points in the final 5:30, and Ohio State took the game – and the tournament – with a 50-43 win.
The victory extended the Buckeyes’ winning streak to eight games and an hour later they learned they were assigned the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s West Region.
Ohio State is now an attractive pick for many college basketball experts as team likely to advance to the Final Four. If Ross keeps it up, they are certainly capable.
And it wasn’t only the scoring. Sure, Ross has thought to have been the answer to the question that has been seemingly haunting Ohio State all season – who will be this team’s second consistent scorer behind Deshaun Thomas.
But with point guard Aaron Craft’s recent tear on the offensive end – he has scored 14 or more points in four of the last seven games – and forward Sam Thompson’s jump shot coming around, the team may not need an individual second scoring option.
“You guys ask me all the time, who is the second-leading scorer?” Matta said. “I really don’t know. But if we can do it collectively, that’s what’s exciting to me.”
It was Ross’ presence during the second half that really made the biggest statement. He looked more poised on defense, grabbed four rebounds and scored seven of Ohio State’s 27 second-half points.
Ross’ recent development into a player Ohio State can count on for a spark off the bench has been developing for quite some time, but Matta feels as if he could be on the verge of seeing the sophomore forward blossom.
It’s March. Perfect timing.
“He has been more (engaged),” Matta said of Ross. “He’s not testing the water with his toe anymore. I tell him, ‘Jump in and we’ll swim from there.’ I love his development. He’s turning the page. He’s more engaged in everything that’s going on around him and he is starting to see the benefits of his hard work.”
In three games in the Big Ten Tournament, Ross averaged 9.0 points and 2.0 rebounds in almost 20 minutes of playing time, statistics that could put an already peaking Ohio State team over the edge.
Ross has earned his playing time in the NCAA Tournament, especially after Matta said the biggest thing he learned about the sophomore’s game is that he’s a big body that is a viable option to help Ohio State’s defense in the post.
Maybe Ross will be Ohio State’s X-Factor, the player that can come off the bench and provide a spark at the right time. Championship-caliber teams often have that ace in the hole, and Ross’ clean stroke and newfound confidence makes him the perfect candidate.
“It makes us more well-rounded,” Matta said. “It adds a guy that can shoot and a guy with size. I think it just gives us another guy that can make a play when we need it.”
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