In the first half, the Buckeyes were in complete control and the Kansas Jayhawks had no answer for their shot-making and defensive ferocity. The problem? The Buckeyes’ momentum and edge stayed in the halftime locker room as the Jayhawks came back from 13 down to pull out a 64-62 victory to advance to the Championship Game Monday night against the Kentucky Wildcats in New Orleans. The Bucks shot just 24% in the second half and their dynamic post duo of Sullinger and Thomas shot a combined 8-for-33 from the field. The Buckeyes were offensively ineffective for the last half of the game, and because of it, Kansas seized the momentum and were able to make more plays late. Ohio State had this game won, and yet they’re going home. That’s the hardest part to swallow out of all of this.
This game could not have started any better for the Buckeyes. The slumping shooting guard, William Buford, hit his first shot, and you a had a feeling that he would be much more engaged in the game. The Buckeyes forced the Jayhawks into 9 first half turnovers, and they were able to convert in transition. Meanwhile, the Jayhawks had 0 transition points in the first half and shot just 37%. Deshaun Thomas covered Robinson and held him to 8 points. Jared Sullinger finished a few shots over the top of the shotblocker Jeff Withey. The Buckeyes were setting up for charges (Craft took two) and blocking shots (Sam Thompson had three). Lenzelle Smith Jr. hit some big shots, and the starting five each had 5 points or more at the break. In short, the Buckeyes looked unstoppable.
That is, until the Jayhawks rallied in the final minute of the first half. KU scored the final four points of the half and cut the Buckeye halftime lead to single digits. With the shot clock off, Aaron Craft drove, appeared to get fouled with no whistle, and because he went early, it started a runout that ended with a Travis Releford layup as the half expired. Releford, the “glue guy and unsung hero” according to TD, finished with 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 steals. That basket was more than just the two points that ended up being the difference in the game, it was a momentum swing and a building block for the Jayhawks.
The turning point of this game was Deshaun Thomas’s second half foul trouble. Thomas picked up his third foul early in the second half on a questionable charge call. Thomas sat for about five minutes as Kansas erased the Buckeyes’ seven point lead. His replacement, Evan Ravenel, struggled to guard Thomas Robinson, who was the best player in this game by far, posting 19 points on 8-of-18 shooting to go with 8 rebounds. When Thomas returned with about 13 minutes remaining, he was only able to stay on the floor for about two minutes before swatting underneath the basket on defense and picking up a silly fourth foul, one that changed Ohio State’s path for the worse. Then again, maybe it didn’t matter, because Thomas finished 3-for-14 shooting for just 9 points in this one. The leading scorer in the tournament to this point didn’t take kindly to the dome shooting backdrop, missing all but 1 of his 7 three point attempts. Maybe it was guarding Robinson that wore him down, but whatever the true reason, Thomas wasn’t himself for the first time since he had emerged as OSU’s go-to scorer late in the season.
KU began the second half with a 17-4 run as the Buckeyes missed their first ten shots. Thomas Robinson began scoring in the post and from the elbow, and eventually sent Thomas to the bench. Seven footer Jeff Withey bounced back from a relatively quiet first half and started challenging and altering just about every shot around the rim, particularly those coming off the hands of Jared Sullinger. Sullinger was just 5-for-19 in the game, his worst shooting performance of the year, finishing with 13 points, 11 boards, and 3 blocks. Withey blocked 7 shots, 5 in the second half and you can’t put the count on how many he affected. Where Sully was able to stay out of Withey’s reach in the first half, he was confused by a couple of sparse double teams and drove it into Withey’s body, with nothing to show for it a majority of the time. If you told me that the Buckeye frontcourt would combine for just 8 field goals and 2 in the second half, I would’ve anticipated a blowout Jayhawk victory. That’s a credit to the Buckeye backcourt.
William Buford was brilliant in his final game in the scarlet and gray. Buford finished tied with Jerry Lucas at third on the all-time Buckeye scoring list with 19 points to bring his total to 1,990 points. Almost inexplicably, Buford looked at home with the dome backdrop and seemed to be on the ball in several crucial situations. If anything, the Buckeye coaching staff’s greatest miscue in this one was not running more plays in the second half through the senior. For as ridiculed as Buford was for a good portion of his Buckeye career (including by this writer on several occasions), I’m glad that William was at least able to end on a high note, even if it was not in victory. Aaron Craft was every bit as tough on defense as he’s been all tournament, forcing Tyshawn Taylor into 5 turnovers and holding him to 3-for-11 shooting. Instead, Taylor had to once again give up the basketball and set up his teammates, accounting for 9 of the 14 Jayhawk assists.
Late in the game, the generally calm Buckeyes panicked, especially Thomas. Down one with 1:20 remaining, Jared Sullinger got caught without a dribble on the right wing under pressure. Thad Matta tried to call a timeout, but it was not awareded as Sully dumped it to Buford who missed the contested and awkward layup. Next possession, it was a William Buford turnover. The Buckeyes got their stop, called a timeout, and ran their play, setting it up for Thomas. Thomas missed the three at the top of the key, grabbed the offensive rebound, and jacked up a wild prayer that grazed the front of the rim. William Buford saved him with a putback dunk to cut it to one with 9 seconds left. After two made free throws, Smith Jr. threw a bad inbounds pass and Tyshawn Taylor stole it only to turn it over himself two seconds later, giving the Bucks another chance. Craft was fouled in the backcourt and sent to the line for a 1-and-1 down 3 with less than three seconds to go. Craft made the first and attempted to grab his own rebound on the second. The Buckeye point was (correctly) called for a lane violation as his stride hovered well past the foul line. The Bucks were caught off guard by a quick inbound and failed to even foul with the Jayhawks running the clock out.
The Buckeyes had an astounding 23 points off turnovers, connected on 14-of-15 free throws, and actually shot better from three point range (8-for-22, 36%) than they did from the field overall (20-of-59, 34%). But, the Jayhawks used a 32-16 advantage with points in the paint and a 42-30 advantage on the boards to bring home the victory.
So, the journey ends for the Bucks but not without a boatload of memories. I’ll revisit some of those in the coming week, but for now, on a personal note, I’d like to thank everyone for reading my coverage of the Buckeye basketball team this season here at WFNY. With my first articles on this site being about this team just over a year ago, I thoroughly enjoy being your WFNY representative when it comes to covering this team. With a squad like this year’s, it makes the painful end last night all worth it.
(Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)