As soon as LaQuinton Ross learned that Ohio State would have the Los Angeles Lakers’ locker room during the NCAA Tournament’s Regional Semifinal, the sophomore forward put his teammates on notice.
“I called dibs on Kobe Bryant’s locker,” he said.
But when Ross walked into the locker room early this week, there were no labels and all Lakers paraphernalia had been temporarily taken down. Though disappointed, Ross chose to sit at a random locker and prepare for practice.
“I didn’t know which locker I sat down at,” Ross said. “But a little later, somebody who worked there told me it was Kobe Bryant’s locker. I was really excited about that.”
Maybe it was fate that in a city swarming with celebrities, Ross would find his star-struck moment the second he found the significance of the locker in which he sat. And it didn’t matter that Bryan wasn’t there.
It was enough for Ross to simply get dressed in the very spot Bryant has graced before every Staples Center home game during a 17-year Lakers career that has amounted into five NBA Finals championships.
Now it’s even more special.
That’s because Ross hit a tiebreaking three-pointer with only two seconds left in No. 2-seeded Ohio State’s Sweet 16 matchup with No. 6 Arizona on Thursday, lifting the Buckeyes to a 73-70 victory that lifted them to the Elite Eight.
“He has his Kobe Bryant moment now,” sophomore Sam Thompson said. “He hit a big shot for us, and that’s just the type of player Q is.”
The type of player Ross is and the type of player he could be are different, but the line between the two is starting to finally merge closer together. And that’s big news for an Ohio State team that’s now one win away from its second consecutive Final Four.
This is the kid that was touted as an NBA-level player even before he ever stepped foot in an Ohio State game, but he spent most of his freshman season a year ago watching the Buckeyes’ deep NCAA Tournament run from the bench.
Ross isn’t that NBA-level player yet, but at least now he’s a contributor – one that even has an argument for being perhaps the most vital spark the Buckeyes have had in this year’s tournament. After playing only 35 minutes in his entire freshman season, Ross has now scored 41 points in 59 minutes in the NCAA Tournament.
Last season Ross was physically on the team, but he doesn’t personally claim the Buckeyes’ Big Ten championship or their Final Four. Watching, Ross said, isn’t winning.
“I told people that last year we won the Big Ten and I said I didn’t feel a part of that,” he said. “Me, I am kind of a selfish guy because I wanted to win on my own.”
Last year’s NCAA Tournament was the stage Deshaun Thomas used to emerge into one of college basketball’s biggest stars, a time during which Ross quietly wondered to himself when he’d have the chance to do the same.
A year later, Ross has.
“He’s being waiting a long time to have a moment like this,” Thompson said. “He’s worked really hard to be a contributor, and I think it’s starting to finally pay off. He helped us get this big win, and that’s important.”
Ross could have had his signature moment in OSU’s 78-75 victory over Iowa State in the third round of the NCAA Tournament last weekend, a game where he came off the bench in the second half and rattled off 10-straight points during what seemed to be the game’s decisive run.
But the Cyclones stormed back to erase a 13-point Buckeyes’ lead in less than two minutes, setting the stage for Aaron Craft’s game-winning three-pointer in the game’s final second. Ross’ impressive spurt was forgotten in the excitement of Craft’s shot.
This time, Ross won’t be forgotten.
Ross had already scored 12 points before he lined up his feet with the clock rapidly ticking down and fired a shot from long past NBA range. The ball slowly rotated in the air and Ross stopped hearing the crowd, knowing that he’d send Ohio State to the Elite Eight with a make.
“It felt good when it left my hands,” he said. “I thought I was going to make it.”
But only 20 seconds earlier, Ross had his hands in the air in disbelief after he fouled Arizona guard Mark Lyons as he drove to the hoop. Ohio State led by three, but Lyons made the bucket and was going to the free throw line because of Ross’ youthful mistake.
Lyons made the free throw and tied the game with 21.8 seconds. Ross immediately regained his composure, then won it.
“It’s always on to the next play,” Ross said.
He’ll forever remember the last one.
But the Buckeyes are hope this isn’t the final memory, and now Ohio State – with Ross’ help – seems as well equipped to win the national championship as any team still alive in the NCAA Tournament.
“He stayed the course and he hasn’t deviated,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “It never goes the way we all want it to go. Everyone wants to be the leading scorer and the leading rebounder, but he has just continued to work and has grown into a young man. I think he feels right now very comfortable in what he’s doing to help this basketball team.”
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