Two tournament games. Two star performances from Ohio State Buckeyes not named Jared Sullinger. Sullinger played a big role in this game down the stretch, but it was Aaron Craft who increased his offensive output, scoring a season-high 17 points to go with 10 assists, his first double-double of his career. Craft also drastically slowed Gonzaga point Kevin Pangos while the Buckeyes advanced to their third straight Sweet 16 by defeating the Bulldogs 73-66 in third round action in Pittsburgh. There were some tense moments throughout the first half as the Buckeyes trailed by as many as 7, and this game was not decided until the final minute. The Buckeyes, however, head to their 14th Sweet 16 and their fourth under Matta, primarily because they had a four-man attack to outlast the Zags.
The Buckeyes took an interesting but not entirely unexpected approach to getting Jared Sullinger the ball against 7-footer Robert Sacre: Sullinger took to the perimeter. Sully’s first three shot attempts were outside the post: all of them makes and two of them from three-point range. While he’s only attempted 36 threes this season, Sully’s hit 16 of them for a 44% clip. With the high amount of disruption on the interior shots that #0 takes, perhaps it’s a good strategy to have him take two or three per game to stretch out the defense.
Analysts and fans alike have been clamoring all season long for the Buckeye point guard to get more aggressive on offense, and yesterday Aaron Craft did just that. He didn’t do the bare minimum on offense as in some games, chipping in with maybe a layup or two and a wide open jumper. Instead, he engaged in a battle with Gonzaga freshman point and leading scorer Kevin Pangos and came out on top. Craft broke down his defender and repeatedly got to the basket, shooting 7-of-9 from the field, with 5 of those layups and his only two misses coming from outside the arc. When Aaron is aggressive, it adds an entirely different facet to the offense, and they’ll need that in future games.
Sullinger had a great start, but he was in foul trouble once again, and the Buckeye center had to sit for the final 9:12 of the first half. Gonzaga’s Sam Dower was killing Sullinger and then Evan Ravenel on the offensive boards. Ravenel, in fact, got caught out of position showing too hard on a few pick and rolls, so Thad Matta went to his third big man, seldom used freshman Amir Williams. Williams has looked a little weak and plenty timid in games against Big Ten competition this season, so I was not anticipating good results. However, Amir gave them a solid four minutes, blocking a shot, drawing a foul, and forcing a turnover. Most importantly, he held strong on defense, and he was out there when Ohio State made their push.
Deshaun Thomas, author of the 31 point showcase on Thursday, was very quiet for the first 15 minutes of the first half. As the Buckeyes fell behind and Sullinger went down, it was a frightening situation for Buckeyes fans, including this blogger. Someone needed to step up. Thomas answered the bell, scoring 12 straight Buckeye point in a four minute span. Sullinger commented on his teammate, “Deshaun is a scorer, so he’s going to find ways to score the basketball, if it’s off the offensive rebound, pick and pop, creating his own shot. We don’t worry about him. Once he makes a bucket, it’s going to keep flowing.” That’s exactly what happened for Deshaun, and the Bulldogs had no answer for the streaking Thomas. Had it not been for Thomas’s scoring surge, the Buckeyes may have played from behind the rest of the game. OSU led by 2 at half when they seemingly had no business being ahead.
Because of Craft’s dribble penetration and Thomas’s scoring run, Gonzaga had no choice but to play zone midway through the second half. Zoning up had the desired effect for the Zags with the Buckeyes tossing it around the perimeter and settling for a lot of long and contested jumpers. Craft agreed, “It just kind of slowed us down. The whole game we were trying to attack them. When they switched defenses, I think we kind of stopped. We kind of played a little more passive.” The Bucks had built a 58-48 lead, but Gonzaga tied the game at 61 with 4 minutes to play. Gonzaga guard Gary Bell Jr. was a major troublemaker for the Buckeyes, as he had a little scoring run of his own, pouring in 7 straight late in this contest and 13 of his 18 in the second half. Forward Elias Harris (16 points, 7 rebounds) also caused problems for Deshaun Thomas.
That’s about the time Matta and company worked on getting Sully reestablished with re-posts off the initial kickout. I had my doubts, hoping the Bucks would go back to Craft and Thomas, but Sullinger did come through. Matta on his big man, “He’s a winner. We’ll ride that down the stretch.” And ride it they did, with Sullinger scoring 6 points in the final three and a half minutes. The final one and perhaps the most crucial basket of the game, involved Sullinger turning middle against one defender and then spinning to the baseline side, finishing over top of the taller Sacre for the hoop. It gave the Buckeyes a five-point lead with just under a minute to go, and it put them in the driver’s seat. The Buckeyes made 7-of-8 free throws down the stretch after that, and it was enough to clinch it. Sullinger was just 5-of-9 from the field, but he was efficient at the line (6-of-7) to get him to a team-high 18 points. Thomas also had 18 points and 7 rebounds on 7-of-15 shooting, leading the team for a second straight game in shot attempts.
Ohio State gave up 13 offensive rebounds to Gonzaga, including five to Dower, but OSU held the Bulldogs to just 39% shooting and 8-for-23 from three point range. The Bucks shot 9-for-24 from three, but I do not think the Buckeyes taking that many deep shots is sustainable given their personnel. Yesterday, however, it was enough.
Next up, the Buckeyes will head to Boston for the East Regional, taking on the winner of tonight’s 3-6 game between Florida State and Cincinnati. Both teams have physical and talented frontlines that could give the Buckeyes issues. The Buckeyes have lost in this round two straight seasons, so they should be prepared for a battle regardless of who it is.
(Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)