LOS ANGELES — This is the way it ends. This is the way it always ends when you’re not cutting down the nets. In a quiet locker room, elbows on your knees, hands on your head, eyes becoming red.
The end hit the Arizona Wildcats suddenly on Thursday night, with a 3-point shot like a dagger from Ohio State’s LaQuinton Ross with 2.1 seconds left. From 11 points up, to 10 points down, to a tie game on the final possession … to heartbreak.
And so Grant Jerrett sat in the Los Angeles Kings locker room at Staples Center, white towel covering his face, hands on his head, struck by the finality of a 73-70 loss to Ohio State in the Sweet 16. Fellow freshman post player Kaleb Tarczewski spoke to Jerrett’s right. The team’s other freshman post, Brandon Ashley, conducted interviews to his left.
For nearly 20 minutes, Jerrett barely moved. How many times he must have replayed the final, fateful play.
“No one died,” he said, when he finally lifted the towel and spoke to reporters for a couple of minutes, “but when you play basketball and you really love it, it hurts a lot.”
Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, who pulled up for the game-winning 3-point shot against Iowa State on Sunday, had the ball, alone up top, after Mark Lyons had tied the game at 70 with a three-point play with 21.8 seconds left. Nick Johnson was guarding Craft, looking around for screens, seconds ticking away.
With about six seconds left, Craft made a move, dribbling to his right. Ross, guarded by Jerrett, set a screen. Kind of. And that’s when the defensive breakdown happened.
To that point, Arizona had been switching on every screen.
“I felt he didn’t really set the screen,” Johnson said. “He set a lousy, little screen. I felt like I got over it pretty easily.”
Jarrett made an initial move to switch to Craft as Ross rolled off the screen (non-screen) into open space behind the 3-point arc on the left side of the court. Craft whipped a pass back to him and Jarrett couldn’t recover, even fully extended as Ross rose and released and splashed the ball through the net. Jarrett’s body went limp as the game-winner found a home.
“Honestly,” Jarrett said, “I’ll take the blame for it.”
The communication error helped Ohio State end a thrilling tug-of-war between two college basketball powers exchanging haymakers for 40 minutes. The Wildcats, looking every inch of a Final Four team, surged to a 33-22 lead, before going scoreless for 7 minutes, 23 seconds spanning halftime.
Ohio State led by 53-43 with 11:02 left after a 31-10 run.
“They came out in the second half and smacked us right in the face,” said Arizona senior Kevin Parrom said. “We responded kind late and that’s the game.”
It would have been had Solomon Hill not played with the ferocity of a senior not wanting to see his career end — he scored nine consecutive points for the Wildcats in the second half — and if Lyons hadn’t been clutch. He scored seven points in the final 80 seconds.
It was all prelude to another shining moment for Ohio State, the Ross Shot that followed the Craft Shot against Iowa State.
“Players make big plays. Teams make big plays,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
“The pressure of the moment, the Sweet 16, going to the Elite Eight, two guys go on one. Whether he made the shot or not, I think we all live with it when it’s challenged and we do what we’re supposed to do. But part of the reason he had such a great look at the end, there were two guys who went with the ball.”
Arizona ends at 27-8, so close to a game against ninth-seeded Wichita State with a spot in the Final Four on the line. The Wildcats, who rose to No. 3 in the polls with a 14-0 start before scuffling through part of the conference play, were playing their best at the end of the season.
That’s what you want, right? It was a 50-50 game against Ohio State, neither team perfect, but each able to think that it should leave the arena victorious. In defeat, Miller’s message to the team was this: Hold your heads high.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our team,” Miller said. “I leave this season with no regrets.”
But the Wildcats do leave. This is the way it ends.