Defense sparks Ohio State's game-changing run vs. Arizona

LOS ANGELES -- With 6:24 remaining in the first half, Arizona led Ohio State 33-22. The Wildcats were getting every loose ball, controlling the glass, getting out in transition and pretty much taking the Buckeyes completely out of the game.

Deshaun Thomas was the only one doing anything remotely effective offensively for Ohio State. It didn’t look like Ohio State had the horses to truly make a run.

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Over the next 15 minutes, Arizona shot 4 for 18 from the field, coughing it up five times -- as Ohio State turned an 11-point deficit into a 10-point lead.

The Wildcats would never lead again -- tying the game in the final minute at 70 -- and Ohio State won it when LaQuinton Ross knocked down a 3-pointer with 2.0 seconds left for a 73-70 win.

“We really were on our heels through, I would guess, maybe the first 10 minutes of the second half, maybe the first eight minutes,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “The fact that I called as many timeouts as I did, I felt like our team was reeling.”

Most of the attention after the game was on Ross and his emergence as a consistent second option to Thomas. Thomas’ ability to score whenever he wants and create matchup problems against anyone was also a talking point.

But it was Ohio State’s defense that was truly the catalyst for the turnaround at the end of the first half and beginning of the second half.

“We got our defense back,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “I told our guys at halftime that I thought it was probably the most selfish defensive effort we have played in a long time and we needed to be more active, more aware, helping.”

That’s nothing new for Ohio State, which held its last eight opponents before the NCAA tournament to 60 points or fewer. When the Buckeyes were 18-7 on Feb. 17, they had come off a poor defensive effort in which they allowed Wisconsin to score 71 points on 60 possessions.

One week prior, they had given up 81 points to Indiana and 76 points to Michigan. In each of their regular-season losses, Ohio State gave up at least one point per possession.

Since then, they have allowed an opponent to reach that mark only once -- in the Round of 32 win over Iowa State.

“We found our calling card is defense,” Lenzelle Smith said. “And we’ve been playing good defense. It’s carrying us. It’s everything for us right now. If we didn’t have our defense, we wouldn’t be anything, honestly.”

After being a consistent playmaker during the first half, scoring 10 first-half points and getting into the lane time and time again, Arizona guard Mark Lyons suffered a drought. Without Lyons scoring, the Wildcats really struggled to find anything offensively in the half-court.

And it wasn’t just Aaron Craft or Shannon Scott locking down in the man-to-man. In the first half, Ohio State’s defensive rotation was poor, letting Lyons and Nick Johnson and Solomon Hill waltz into the teeth of the defense and get uncontested finishes.

That all changed during the game-altering 31-10 run that spanned both halves.

“We came together,” Craft said.

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