Blue-Collar Buckeyes Too Tough for Bearcats
By Brandon Castel
BOSTON — There were no banners hanging from the rafters of the TD Garden in downtown Boston, but the Buckeyes played like champions in their 81-66 victory over Cincinnati Thursday night.
They still have a long way to go, and the challenges only get stiffer from here, but Ohio State finally cleared its Sweet 16 hurdle, and in the process proved itself to be a lot tougher than many expected.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“I think everything we’ve been through this year as a team, all the tough losses, kind of prepared us for this moment,” point guard Aaron Craft said.
“It was great to see our team respond that way tonight.”
The Buckeyes picked up their 30th win of the season Thursday, something OSU head coach Thad Matta said he did not think possible when his team began the season back in November.
It was probably something he didn’t think too much of in February either, especially after the Buckeyes had lost 3-of-5, including two in a row at home.
“I think a lot of it had to do with just youth,” Matta said after the game.
“I keep saying I’m not going to beat a dead horse here, but we’ve got one senior, one junior, and the rest are freshmen and sophomores.”
It didn’t help that Matta’s lone senior, William Buford, did not exactly play like a senior against the Bearcats. He was just 1-of-8 from the floor with four turnovers and four fouls in 30 minutes, but the Buckeyes were carried in the first half by, who else, but Deshaun Thomas.
Star forward Jared Sullinger had 10 of his 23 points and nine of his 11 rebounds in the first half, but it was Thomas who carried the day with 20 first-half points for the Buckeyes against Cincinnati’s zone defense.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“Having my mind right,” Thomas said when asked what got him going early.
“I mean, trusting in coach (Matta) and my teammates and hitting open shots. I was really good in that zone, flashing and kicking it down to Sully and just getting in the open area and just knocking down shots. That’s what got me going.”
With Thomas leading the way, the Buckeyes shot 45 percent from the floor in the first half and led the Bearcats 37-25 at the intermission. It looked like Ohio State had rediscovered its mojo, but those feel-good vibes rooted themselves a little too deeply in the minds of the players.
“We’ve got two types of basketball teams,” Sullinger said.
“We’ve got the cool guys and then the blue-collar guys. I thought to start the second half, we got into the cool-guy mode and we kind of let our guard down.”
Not kind of.
The Bearcats turned up the heat to open the second half, switching out of their zone defense and going primarily man-to-man in order to take away the open looks for Thomas.
Ohio State responded by giving up a 24-7 run out of the gates. A couple of big threes by UC point guard Cashmere Wright gave Cincinnati a 49-45 lead with 12:13 to play in the game.
“We only allowed 25 points in the first half and we looked up with 12 minutes to go in the second half and we had already allowed them to score almost as many,” said Buford.
“We knew we had to turn up the defense and get some stops if we were going to win the game.”
All season, Sullinger has been talking about this team needed to “draw a line in the sand,” and about being the tougher team and saying “enough is enough.”
Well, they finally did that Thursday after blowing a 12-point halftime lead to fall behind by four points midway through the second half.
“Earlier in the year we probably would have fallen apart,” Buford said.
“But we stayed together. We kept talking, kept communicating with each other and we didn’t get frustrated.”
Not with the way Craft was making plays at the defensive end. The sophomore point guard tied an Ohio State tournament record with six steals, and catapulted the Buckeyes to a 17-1 run in the second half that put Cincinnati away for good.
“We talk about maturity with these guys, and I think we’ve grown in that area,” Matta said.
“But we needed a little bit of a wake-up call there.”
Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. hit back-to-back threes and the Buckeyes pushed their lead back to 12 points with 5:55 to play. From there, it became a free throw game, with Ohio State making enough big ones down the stretch to pull away for a 15-point lead.
“It feels good to be in the Elite 8, but we still have one more game on our schedule (here in Boston),” Sullinger said.
“We have to focus on that. Hopefully the train doesn’t stop here."
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