LOS ANGELES — The last time their teams met in the NCAA tournament, Thad Matta earned bragging rights over close friend Sean Miller thanks to a late comeback, a last-gasp 3-pointer and a strong overtime.
Thursday night’s Sweet 16 matchup between second-seeded Ohio State and sixth-seeded Arizona again ended with Miller congratulating Matta – and again the way it happened could not have been more dramatic.
Moments after Mark Lyons completed an Arizona rally from a 10-point deficit with a game-tying three-point play, Aaron Craft drew a double team on a high ball screen and found LaQuinton Ross spotted up behind the arc to the left of the top of the key. Ross buried the game-winning 3-pointer, giving Ohio State a 73-70 victory and advancing the Buckeyes to face the winner of Thursday’s nightcap between ninth-seeded Wichita State and 13th-seeded La Salle in the West Regional finals.
That Ohio State is now one win away from a second straight Final Four would have been a mild surprise as recently as mid-February when the Buckeyes lost three of four to fall into fifth place in the Big Ten. It was then that complementary scorers finally began to emerge to lessen the pressure on Deshaun Thomas and Ohio State’s formidable defense.
Craft scored 14 or more points in five of Ohio State’s nine games prior to Thursday night, erupting for 18 and sinking the game-winning 3-pointer in the round of 32 against Iowa State. Ross also tallied 17 against the Cyclones and starting forward Sam Thompson had a career day against Iona with 20.
Thomas led Ohio State with 20 points against Arizona and Ross, Craft and Thompson chipped in a combined 41, but what changed the game in the Buckeyes’ favor was their defense.
Trailing Arizona by 11 points late in the first half thanks to a barrage of 3-pointers from the Wildcats, Ohio State strung together enough stops to close within four at the break. The Buckeyes built on that momentum defensively to start the second half, not allowing a single Arizona point for the first 5:22 and reeling off 10 of their own to silence the pro-Wildcats crowd and take a six-point lead.
Arizona threatened sporadically the rest of the way thanks to a heroic xx-point effort from forward Solomon Hill in his last college game, but the Wildcats never regained the lead they held nearly the entire first half. Forward LaQuinton Ross made two of Ohio State’s biggest baskets, a corner 3-pointer with six minutes to go to answer a Mark Lyons 3-pointer that trimmed Arizona’s deficit to three and a slashing layup on the Buckeyes’ next possession to again extend the advantage to six.
For Arizona, the Sweet 16 loss marked the end to a season that began with great promise