Buckeyes Overcome Orange, Advance To Final Four
By Ben Axelrod
On Feb. 26, the Ohio State men’s basketball team suffered its third loss in a five-game stretch and seemed destined for a second place finish in the Big Ten with an early round exit from the NCAA Tournament likely to follow.
Less than a month later, they find themselves headed to the Final Four for the 10th time in program history.
No. 2-seeded OSU (31-7, 13-5 Big Ten) overcame both foul trouble and No. 1-seed Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense on Saturday night, capping off an impressive run through the NCAA’s East region with a 77-70 defeat of the Orange (34-3, 17-1 Big East) in Boston.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“It's funny, I don't know if it's completely sunk in yet,” OSU coach Thad Matta said.
“As I take a moment to reflect, I mean, I don't know if I could be prouder of a basketball team in terms of what‑ everything that they've been through, and not bad. We never lost two games in a row. You look at the losses we had this year, hard‑fought games.”
The Buckeyes got off to a hot start, picking apart Syracuse’s zone defense and jumping out to a 9-2 lead in the first four minutes of the game. The Orange, however, fought back to bring the OSU lead to just two, and appeared to be in an even better position when OSU forward Jared Sullinger’s second foul sent him to bench with 13:43 remaining in the first half.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, some solid spot minutes from reserve Evan Ravenel and freshman center Amir Williams coupled with foul trouble for Syracuse’s Rakeem Christmas and Dion Waiters allowed OSU to head into halftime with the game tied at 29.
“These guys have played without me before, so they know what they have to do. We just kept competing on the defensive end. I think that's what won the basketball game,” Sullinger said.
“And also in the first half that's what got the game so knotted up. It's not the first time they've played without me, so I'm just proud of these guys.”
Photo by Jim Davidson
Well-rested from 13-plus minutes of time on the bench before intermission, Sullinger made his impact felt in the second half. The Buckeye big man combined with guard William Buford to score 11 points in the first six minutes of the half before a Lenzelle Smith, Jr. free throw pushed the Buckeyes’ lead to 10 with 13:45 remaining in the game.
The Orange made a run to come within three points of the Buckeyes just two minutes later, but Smith answered with a 3-point shot to push the OSU advantage back to six. It wouldn’t be the last big three made by Smith, who had to leave for the locker room in the first half to receive stitches after being on the wrong end of an inadverdant head butt but Syracuse’s Brandon Triche. With Syracuse again knocking on the Buckeyes’ door and within just one point with seven minutes remaining, Smith sank another 3-point shot to stretch the OSU lead to four.
“He did a lot for us, whether it was offensively or defensively. He stepped up and made a couple big shots for us, and on the other end, as well, he did a good job of keeping their great guards in front of him and trying to do his best,” OSU guard Aaron Craft said of Smith’s performance.
“He was a little out of it the first half after getting hit and getting those stitches, but he did a great job at halftime of kind of regrouping and sticking together, and he knocked down some big shots for us.”
Triche answered back with a 3-pointer of his own, but the Orange never found itself closer than three points to the Buckeyes after Sullinger responded with a jumper of his own and then helped seal the game at the free throw line alongside Smith, Buford, Craft, and Deshaun Thomas.
Despite his first half foul trouble, Sullinger finished with a team-high 19 points and seven rebounds. Smith finished with 18 points- including three made 3-point shots- and Thomas added 14 points to go along with nine rebounds.
The Buckeyes- who in February found themselves ranked as low as No. 11 in some polls- will now turn their attention towards New Orleans for college basketball’s biggest stage, the Final Four, where they’ll meet Sunday’s winner between North Carolina (32-5, 14-2 ACC) and Kansas (30-6, 16-2 Big 12) for the right to play in the 2012 National Championship Game.
“I appreciated everyone that doubted this basketball team, said we were the underdogs, we weren't good enough, mentally strong enough, not physically strong enough, mentally immature, we heard it all,” Sullinger said.
“We know hopefully it's not our last game, so we're just trying to play hard and play smart, and not going down to New Orleans for a vacation. It's a business trip.”
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