Former Schenectady High School basketball standout Mark Lyons nearly stole the show Thursday night for the Arizona Wildcats, but Ohio State had other ideas.
Lyons, a 6-foot-1 senior guard, scored 23 points, including a gutsy, acrobatic three-point-play with 21.8 seconds remaining to tie the game at 70-70.
But with 2 seconds left, the Buckeyes' LaQuinton Ross buried a shot from behind the arc to give Ohio State a 73-70 victory in an NCAA West semifinal matchup.
When Ross found out Ohio State was using the Los Angeles Lakers’ dressing room this weekend, he immediately called dibs on Kobe Bryant’s locker for the first NCAA tournament game ever played at Staples Center.
And with a dramatic flair that would make No. 24 proud, Ross sent the Buckeyes to the brink of another Final Four.
Ross' tiebreaking 3-pointer on a pass from Aaron Craft helped Ohio State advance to the West Regional final.
Ross scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half for the second-seeded Buckeyes (29-7), who rallied from an early 11-point deficit. With Ross making a series of tough shots capped by that dramatic 3, Ohio State weathered the sixth-seeded Wildcats’ late charge for its 11th consecutive victory since mid-February.
“It feels great, man,” said Ross, a once-ballyhooed recruit who has grown into a key reserve role in the past few months. “This is what every player grows up looking at on TV, and wants to hit that big shot, wants to win the game and hit the big shot in the NCAA tournament or the NBA. It just feels great to be here right now.”
Ohio State faces ninth-seeded Wichita State on Saturday, and the Buckeyes could be Atlanta-bound with one more win.
Deshaun Thomas scored 20 points for the Buckeyes, and Craft added 13 before ceding Ohio State’s final shot to Ross when the Wildcats didn’t make the proper switch on the Buckeyes’ screen. Ross coolly drilled his second 3-pointer and set off a wild celebration in the Ohio State section of the Arizona-dominated crowd.
Craft hit an awfully similar 3-pointer against Iowa State last Sunday to send the Buckeyes forward with a 78-75 victory, but Ross didn’t flinch at his turn under pressure in this increasingly magical Ohio State season.
“LaQuinton has really grown in a lot of areas,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “I think the biggest thing he’s done is he’s engaged himself in all the little things, and that’s made him a better basketball player. We’re proud of him.”
Arizona couldn’t get off a shot on its last-second inbounds heave, and Lyons greeted Ross in the postgame handshakes with a joking “I can’t stand you!”
Lyons’ acrobatic three-point play for the Wildcats (27-8) had tied it with 21.8 seconds left, thanks to a foul by Ross.
“It was similar to the play we ran last game,” Ross said. “We like to get the (big men) on a pick-and-roll. It so happened they messed up the switch there, and I was able to knock down the shot.”
Lyons and the Wildcats rallied from a 10-point deficit in the second half before falling just short of their second NCAA regional final in four years. Solomon Hill added 16 points in his native Los Angeles, but the rest of Arizona combined for just 31 points on 10-for-29 shooting.
“The only thing I regret is not getting past the Sweet Sixteen, because I’ve been there so many times and I just feel like I can’t get over that hump,” said Lyons, the Xavier transfer. “But I’ve got no regrets. I played with a great bunch of guys this whole year who had a lot of faith in me, and I’m just happy they accepted me.”
Sam Thompson added 11 points for the Buckeyes, who trailed for nearly the entire first half before pushing ahead and nursing a small lead throughout the final minutes. Ohio State mounted a 33-13 surge spanning halftime, taking a 53-43 lead with 11 minutes left.
The Wildcats finally got rolling, but Ross kept the Buckeyes in front with nine consecutive points down the stretch.
Although Arizona coach Sean Miller lamented his team’s coverage mistake on the final possession, he still praised his players.
“I’m proud of our guys’ effort,” Miller said. “We tried hard, and losing in this tournament when you play hard to the end hurts more in the beginning, but I think you leave with a lot of pride knowing you played your heart out.”
The game was the second NCAA tournament meeting between Matta and Miller, whose friendship goes back two decades to their time together at Miami of Ohio and Xavier.
Ohio State hasn’t lost since Feb. 17, beating Indiana on the road before winning the Big Ten tournament. The Buckeyes had much more trouble than Arizona in their first two NCAA games, but they’re showing a knack for last-minute heroics at the perfect time.
Arizona took the lead on its first basket, a 3-pointer from Lyons in the opening minute, and held it throughout a slow-moving first half featuring 19 fouls. With superior ball movement and scoring balance, the Wildcats eventually pushed the margin to 31-20 on Nick Johnson’s 3-pointer with 7 minutes left in the half.
Ohio State finally awoke when Craft returned to the game after sitting early with two fouls, trimming the margin to 38-34 by halftime. The Buckeyes finished the half on a 14-7 run capped by the second 3-pointer from Thomas, who scored 16 of their 34 first-half points with his steady all-around game.
Thompson’s layup with 17:39 left gave Ohio State its first lead since 2-0, and the Buckeyes opened the second half with a 10-0 run while holding Arizona scoreless for more than 6½ minutes spanning halftime.
As the only school west of Wichita left in the regional, Arizona had a significant home-crowd advantage at the cavernous Staples Center, packing the lower bowl with thousands of fans. But Ohio State also had a healthy fan turnout led by Cleveland’s favorite son, “The Price Is Right” host Drew Carey.
Lyons attended Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., in 2007-08 after playing for Schenectady High School.