You wouldn’t know it by the halftime score or the final score, but the Buckeyes were fighting for their tournament lives for most of the second half. The Cincinnati Bearcats got hot shooting the basketball, and the Buckeyes relaxed with a big lead, turned the ball over repeatedly, and went offensively silent all at the same time, allowing UC to use a 27-8 run to give them a 4-point lead with 12 minutes to play. Thankfully, Aaron Craft and the entire defense turned up the effort. That fueled the offense, and Jared Sullinger and others hit some huge shots, propelling OSU into the Elite 8 with a 81-66 victory in Boston.
The Buckeyes built up a large first half lead, almost solely due to the work of Deshaun Thomas. The leading scorer in the tournament for the Bucks, Thomas posted 20 in the first on 8-of-12 shooting. The Bearcats primarily operated out of a 2-3 zone in the first half, and Deshaun absolutely thrived by finding ways to get the ball in the open gaps of that zone. Thomas added, “We’ve learned that teams are double teaming us and playing the right guy out of the double-team. He seen me flashing, now they double-teaming me, so now I see him flashing. So I think that’s way better. I think we’re here as a team, we keep moving the ball and then we play off each other.” Jared Sullinger was also very active on the boards, nearly posting a first-half double-double with 10 points and 9 rebounds. The frontcourt display was enough to build a 12-point advantage at the break despite no points from Aaron Craft or William Buford. Thomas finished with a team-high 26 points on 10-of-17 shooting.
Cincy did not go quietly, however, and made a tremendous run to start the second half. Coach Mick Cronin switched back to their primary man-to-man defense, and the Bucks offense stalled. They turned it over five times in the stretch where UC took the lead, and the Bearcats got four buckets off those turnovers. The Buckeye transition defense was poor, and the only three buckets during the first eight minutes of the half were from Jared Sullinger. Deshaun Thomas had been effectively silenced by the switch back to man. Before you could blink, the Bearcats had completely wiped out their double digit defecit and had built a lead of their own. Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick got hot from behind the arc, each providing 8 points in the Bearcats surge, and they hit six straight shots at one point. Sullinger said about the opening of the first half, “We’ve got two types of basketball teams: 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.”
When it comes down to it, I feel the two leaders on this team are Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft. When things get tough, they seem to be the most calm and vocal players on the court. Last night, Sully’s offense and Craft’s defense pulled the Buckeyes together and allowed them to build another impressive lead. Craft had a team-high 6 steals, but he made life miserable on dozens of other plays. The Buckeyes used a 17-1 run to make their push back. Sullinger hands-down with his 23 points and 11 rebounds won the battle with Yancy Gates (7 points, 5 rebounds). Cincy just did not have the personnel to handle Sullinger, who made his presence known both in the post and on the offensive glass. He also had officials that called fouls for him, and he converted 9-of-10 attempts. As defensively dominant as Craft was, he also added all 11 of his points in the second half, making Cincinnati pay for leaving him open on the perimeter.
To put it as nicely and family-friendly as I can, William Buford was simply terrible in this game. The lone senior looked like he was playing his way out of a Buckeye uniform tonight with yet another abysmal Sweet 16 performance. Buford had three turnovers in the meltdown, and he was just 1-for-8 shooting on the day. Fortunately, with Thomas going off in the first half and Sullinger, Craft, and Smith Jr. all scoring in the second half, his offensive output was picked up by others. To Matta’s credit, he pulled Buford and went with Shannon Scott (Buford did pick up his fourth foul), who at least provided defense and sure passing. The guy who picked up Buford’s production was Lenzelle Smith Jr. The sophomore guard hit 6-of-7 shots for 15 points, 10 of those coming in the second half. Smith has shown the ability to come up big at times this season, and he picked the perfect game to do it again. Lenzelle also added 5 rebounds and 2 steals to the Buckeye cause. For what it’s worth, Matta defended his senior guard, saying that he expects better on Saturday and that his first 20 minutes on defense were his best as a Buckeye. They’re going to need the good William Buford on Saturday, and considering he’s had two pretty pedestrian games and one nightmare last night, I think he’s due for a 20-point showing.
The Buckeyes had 13 steals, forcing 18 Bearcats turnovers and turning them into 20 points. Ohio State connected on 8-of-17 threes (47%) and had 13 second chance points. The Bucks also got to the line with ease (19-of-27) while keeping the Bearcats off the stripe (5-of-8) by fouling just 11 times in the game.
In the last two seasons, the Buckeyes were going home after losing this game. The Evan Turner-led Bucks were outschemed and killed on the offensive glass by Tennessee, and the Lighty-Diebler-Lauderdale bunch from last season were the victims of a showcase performance from Josh Harrellson down low and another nightmare shooting effort from Buford. Jared Sullinger acknowledged that they were thinking about those exits, “It feels tremendous. Coach Matta has been through two Sweet 16s where the train kind of stopped. Well, it did stop. And we wanted to make sure that this train was going to keep rolling.” This is now the second deepest that Matta has taken an OSU team in the tourney, the deepest of course being the ’07 title game loss by the Oden-Conley squad. Do I think this is Thad’s second best team at OSU? No, but the tournament is all about matchups, and the Buckeyes have been considerably better than their opponents thus far.
To get to the Final Four, the Buckeyes will have to go through the top seeded Syracuse Orange. The Orange, as always, are known for their pesky 2-3 zone that will tempt the Buckeyes to take three point shots. That probably won’t be a recipe for success for the Bucks, but Deshaun Thomas is. With an active defense and several capable scorers, the Orange will be Ohio State’s most difficult test of the year.
(Photo: Jim Rogash/Getty Images)