The lengthy freshman took a pass from Shannon Scott and fired a three with 2:34 left in overtime, giving the 10th-seeded Buckeyes a 71-68 lead they would not relinquish on their way to a 75-72 win over No. 7 Virginia Commonwealth in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Portland, Ore.
“My coaches and all my teammates believed in me,” Bates-Diop said. “I couldn’t let them down.
“I had faith in everybody else on the floor could have made that shot, could have made a play, it just happened to be me.”
It happened to be Bates-Diop for the second time. A three with 3:36 remaining in regulation gave the Buckeyes a 62-60 advantage, helping Ohio State force a dramatic overtime period.
In all Bates-Diop took just those two shots, but he made them both to finish with the game’s most crucial six points.
“Keita is huge,” Russell said. “We see it every day in practice. We know what he's capable of. It just comes with confidence. I feel like that's with anybody on our team, the confidence will raise everybody's level of play. I mean, you're seeing a star in the making with Keita. He just needs the confidence.”
Like his classmate, Russell played with confidence in his first NCAA Tournament game. The freshman finished with a game-high 28 points despite playing the final 4:56 of regulation and all of overtime with a nasty cut above his left eye that required stitches after the game.
The Buckeyes and Rams went to overtime knotted at 66 and VCU got things going first in the extra period thanks to a jumper from Treveon Graham. Russell answered with a layup two possessions later to tie the score at 68 and set up the Bates-Diop three.
Melvin Johnson and Shannon Scott traded layups on the two possessions following the go-ahead three, giving the Rams a final chance to tie the score. Head coach Shaka Smart called a timeout with 22.5 seconds left to draw up the final play, a three-point look for Graham that rimmed out.
“Guys did a pretty good job executing the play,” Smart said. “He got a wide-open shot. He just didn't knock it down. But, you know, again, our focus shouldn't necessarily be just on one shot, it should be on some of the things that we have full control over that we could have done better.”
Bates-Diop hauled in the carom off the Graham miss and quickly got the ball to Russell who was fouled and iced the game with a pair of free throws to extend the margin to 75-70 with just five seconds left. The Rams went coast-to-coast for a last-second layup to bring the game to its final margin.
“Our biggest thing was making sure everybody was ready to play,” Scott said. “I mean, guys stepped in, made big shots, especially Keita. D'Angelo always has pressure on him. Whenever he draws a guy, we have to step up and make plays. I think everybody did that.”
Early on it appeared that the Rams may have been more ready. An Amir Williams dunk opened the scoring, but that 2-0 advantage would be the only Ohio State lead of the first half and it would last just 17 seconds.
Despite a height advantage – the Rams tallest starter was just 6-8 – the Buckeyes struggled to rebound early, not hauling in their first missed shot until nearly five minutes had run off the clock. VCU had a 12-9 lead at that point, thanks to four early second-chance points, and things got worse before they got better for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes kept pace with the Rams through the 12:08 mark when a Trey McDonald tip-in pulled his team within 16-13, but Ohio State went cold from there. The Buckeyes didn’t score for the next 6:29, missing nine straight shots with 12 straight empty possessions.
With 6:38 remaining the Rams had built a 25-13 advantage, their largest of the game, and Thad Matta had seen enough. The coach called a timeout in an attempt to rally his troops.
“I went at 'em and challenged them to man up,” Matta said of his message during the timeout. “You know, I said at that point, ‘Hey, it's time to play our best basketball, and you got to man up.’”
The Buckeyes did, closing the half on a 16-5 run. Tate snapped the scoring drought with a layup before Russell scored eight straight for the Buckeyes, including a pair of threes. Williams added three points on the run before a Tate free-throw and a Russell layup brought Ohio State to the half trailing just 30-29.
While he didn’t score during that stretch, Scott was instrumental in the run, assisting on four of the Buckeyes five made field goals after the timeout. The senior finished with 10 helpers, his first double-digit assist performance since a Jan. 6 win at Minnesota, the last of which came on Bates-Diop’s overtime three.
“I mean, Shannon made it easy for everybody,” Russell said. “He was breaking the defense down. He made it easy, played big today.”
While the first-half run coincided with Scott’s facilitating, it also came with a defensive shift. Matta sent the Buckeyes into a zone out of his first-half timeout despite the penchant that the Rams have for shooting from behind the arc. That shift limited VCU’s dribble penetration as the Rams went just 2 of 10 against the zone in the first half, and Ohio State remained in that set for much of the second.
The Buckeyes were able to take their first lead of the second half on a Russell three with 17:22 remaining. The lead would swell to six on another three from Russell that set the margin at 56-39 with 15:14 remaining, but Ohio State couldn’t pull away.
Doug Brooks hit a three on VCU’s next possession, his first of four on four consecutive offensive trips, and Ohio State would not lead by that many again.
The Buckeyes played a physical, back-and-forth second half that saw eight of the games 10 lead changes and five of its six ties.
Following Bates-Diop’s first three of the game, Williams hit two free throws after an offensive rebound, just his second rebound of the night. That gave Ohio State a 64-60 advantage with 2:43 remaining, but the Rams weren’t ready for their season to end.
Back-to-back threes from Melvin Johnson game the Rams a two-point edge that Williams erased with a dunk. The Rams had one final chance to win in regulation. Despite playing with four fouls, Sam Thompson ensured that Graham would not hit the game winner, staying with the Rams senior as he drove to the basket and challenging the shot at the rim.
“I knew that I was going to be out on an island and I knew that he was going to take the last shot,” Thompson said. “I just wanted to make it tough for him. I wanted to try to make him go left and I wanted to try to make him finish over me as opposed to around me. That’s what I did.”
That sent the game to overtime where the Buckeyes would ensure that they would have at least one more game this season. Ohio State faces No. 2 Arizona Saturday.
Joining Russell in double figures for Ohio State was Tate with 12 and Williams with 13.