LOS ANGELES — LaQuinton Ross was changing in Ohio State's locker room before Thursday's Sweet 16 matchup with Arizona when a Staples Center employee informed the sophomore forward whose locker he was using.
Much to his delight, it was Kobe Bryant's.
"To find out I had that locker, it felt great," Ross said. "That's one of my favorite players growing up and somebody I model my game after."
A few hours later, Ross sank a shot reminiscent of so many his locker-mate has hit in this building, a thunderbolt that silenced a mostly pro-Arizona crowd and ensured Ohio State an Elite Eight matchup with either La Salle or Wichita State.
With the score tied after a Mark Lyons three-point play capped a late Arizona comeback from a 10-point deficit, Aaron Craft used a high ball screen from Ross to try to create a mismatch but drew a double team instead. As a result, Craft whipped a pass to Ross spotted up to the left of the top of the key and then shouted "knockdown" as his teammate buried the 3-pointer over late-recovering Grant Jerrett with two seconds left to secure a 73-70 victory.
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"I'm glad he listened to me," Craft joked afterward. "Sometimes you have to tell your guys what to do. I don't think he needed me to. It's just habit. He's a great player and it's great to see him knock that down."
Ross' clutch 3-pointer marked the latest chapter in his journey from highly-touted recruit, to frustrated benchwarmer, to blossoming role player.
Once the nation's top-rated high school sophomore thanks to his fluidity in the paint and on the perimeter, the 6-foot-7 Ross routinely dominated the AAU circuit against kids a grade or two ahead of him. That changed later in his high school career when he returned from a severe ankle injury out of shape and struggled to recapture his prior form, dropping down the recruiting rankings amid accusations his effort and commitment to basketball were too erratic.
Ross signed with Ohio State with surprisingly little fanfare, but academic issues delayed his college debut until the start of winter semester in December 2011. Unfamiliar with the Buckeyes' defensive concepts and unable to crack an already established rotation, Ross appeared in only nine games last season and did not play a minute during Ohio State's NCAA tournament run to the Final Four.
"It was definitely tough on him," Craft said. "I think he saw he could try to rebel as much as he wanted to, but we were still going to go on. He's done a great job really jumping on board this year. If you talk to him about that, I think he'd tell you the same thing."
The key to Ross earning more playing time this season is he has improved defensively and given a more consistent effort. It also doesn't hurt that Ohio State has been desperate for most of the season to find a third scorer to ease some of the burden on Deshaun Thomas and Craft.
Though still coming off the bench behind Thomas and Sam Thompson for Ohio State this season, Ross has averaged 19 minutes per game during the Buckeyes' six postseason games this month. He scored 17 points against Iowa State in a round of 32 NCAA tournament victory last week and he had 17 again Thursday against Arizona on 5 of 8 shooting from the field.
"He is a huge reason we have won 11 in a row," Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals said. "The whole year we've been looking for that second or third scorer. Aaron Craft has picked it up the last couple weeks, and now LaQuinton is playing with a lot of confidence. Anytime he gives us that scoring, it's a huge bonus for us because we feel like our defense is good enough to get enough stops and keep us in the game."
Even before his game-winning 3-pointer, Ross sank two of the biggest shots of Thursday's victory, the first a corner three after Arizona had cut the deficit to three and the second a driving layup on the ensuing possession. It was his foul on Lyons' last-minute drive to the rim that enabled the Arizona guard to tie the game at the free throw line with 21 seconds to go, but Ross certainly redeemed himself seconds later at the other end of the floor.
"Every player grows up looking at this on TV and wants to hit that big shot, wants to win the game in the NCAA tournament," Ross said.
Most of those kids never get to live their dreams. On Thursday night, in the building where one of his heroes plays, Ross did.
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