The Ohio State Buckeyes and Syracuse Orange met in Boston this evening to decide who would represent the East Region in the Final Four. After a tight, hard-fought battle, the Buckeyes succeeded in picking up the 77-70 victory over the 1-seeded Syracuse Orange. Every single Buckeye contributed a key piece to this tough victory, but Jared Sullinger led all scorers with 19 points and 7 rebounds. He was followed closely by Lenzelle Smith’s 18 points, most scored in the 2nd half with the game coming down to the wire. On Syracuse’s side of the ball Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine combined for 29 points and a pair of rebounds.
Both teams started off hot attacking the paint with extreme aggression. That may have been a surprise to many who suspected the Buckeyes were going to have to use the long ball to attack the Syracuse 2-3 zone. However, as the Bucks had demonstrated against Cincinnati, they had learned well the methods of handling the 2-3 under the basket. Those lessons were proven valuable again as OSU was able to misdirect, and pass around, the Syracuse zone.
Unfortunately, Jared Sullinger was forced to sit with 13 minutes with two quick fouls. His second foul seemed to be a bit ticky-tack, but with the game being an intense back-and-forth affair, it was understandable that the refs were playing things conservatively. Thankfully, the Buckeyes have been forced on many occasions this season to play without him, which has been to the benefit of Ravenel’s development. He certainly put those skills on display tonight, demonstrating that he could handle the quality interior presence of the Orange.
With OSU’s best big sitting on the bench Syracuse seemed to press their attack into the paint even more. By doing so, they were able to force Evan Ravenel into a quick pair of fouls of his own. Matta, of course, responded by bringing Amir Williams into the game. Ultimately, the move hurt the Buckeyes. While Amir Williams is a very talented player, he is by no means close to a polished product. It was clear from his play on offense that he doesn’t understand as well as Ravenel and Sullinger how to attack the 2-3, nor does he move around nearly as effectively in the paint as the other bigs.
The Buckeyes were not the only team to struggle with foul difficulty in the game. Late in the first half, Syracuse already had four players with two fouls including starters Rakeem Christmas and Brandon Triche, and more significantly Dion Waiters off the bench. The early foul trouble, especially to several important scorers, may have contributed to OSU’s ability to keep the game close going into the half.
The game went into the half at 29 a piece in a tough defensive battle. Neither team shot well in the first half, with both teams hitting about 35% from the floor, and OSU hitting only 14% from three. There simply weren’t many sunk baskets to be had, made worse by the surprising number of missed layups on both sides. With the battle of the boards coming out fairly evenly (21-17 OSU), it was not clear that either team had a signficant advantage over the other in any phase of the game.
The early second half felt a lot different than the beginning of the first. Where both teams attacked aggressively in the first half, both teams seemed more cautious. That may have had something to do with how tightly the officials were calling the game. It could also have been due to defensive adjustments making the defenses look unfamiliar to the offenses. Either way, it was a much less hectic approach from both sides.
The pace worked perfectly to Ohio State’s preference. With Syracuse playing a slower, more deliberate offensive style, the Buckeye defense was better able to adjust and handle ‘Cuse’s scorers. Similarly, the Bucks did not feel panic on the other end, and were able to work the ball to find their open shooters. With things going smoothly, the Bucks began to slowly open a lead on the Orange. That was only helped more as Syracuse began to panic and launch bad shots to try to get back into the game.
Once the lead had ballooned to ten, Syracuse began to find success on offense again. First, an impressive 12 footer from the left baseline from Kris Joseph gave the Orange a burst, especially when William Buford was called for being a little too aggressive on defense. Brandon Triche quickly followed that up with a three pointer to close the gap and get the clearly pro-Syracuse crowd back into the game.
The run was only helped by the over-protectiveness of the officials, who seemed to call every possible instance of physical contact a foul. At least to their credit they called it consistently both ways, but the sheer quantity of fouls called was ridiculous. It seemed almost to the point that both teams were going to be sitting their starters for the last 10 minutes of the game.
It took almost as long for Syracuse to close the gap as it took the Buckeyes to build it in the first place. With only five minutes left in the game, the Buckeyes found themselves holding a scant one point lead and beginning to feel the icy grip of panic on their necks. But by being patient and feeding Thomas and Sullinger in the paint, good things began to happen again. Sullinger hit a tough shot, and also drew another two fouls on the Syracuse bigs allowing him to go to the line and extend the lead again and give the Bucks a little breathing room from the talented Orange.
It was after the under-four timeout that things became intense again. With nearly every player in the game in foul trouble, the teams began trading offensive body-blows on the scoreboard. The Bucks held a scant four point lead with 2 minutes left, and the Orange had managed to arrange their 2-3 zone to make it difficult for OSU to get the ball down inside the lane to Sullinger and Thomas. Ohio State had to call a timeout to readjust their offense to make opportunities to get the ball into the lane. Taking advantage of Thomas’s offensive prowess, OSU pulled him to the top of the key, fed him the ball after shifting the ‘Cuse defense, and allowed him to take the ball down the lane for two. On the other end, Syracuse lost the handle on the ball, giving OSU a chance to wear time off the clock and look for a good shot.
Ultimately, while Syracuse briefly closed the gap with their last minute fouling, the Buckeyes were able to sink the majority of their free-throws and put the game out of reach. The win marked the first time since 2007 that Ohio State had advanced to the Final Four, and the 2nd time in Thad Matta’s career.
The Buckeyes shot 21-51 (41.2%) from the floor and 4-13 (20.8%) from beyond the arc for the game, while Syracuse hit 22-53 (41.5%) and 6-16 (37.5%) respectively. The Buckeyes held the rebounding advantage for the game 39-26, including a 14-8 advantage on the offensive boards. The teams combined for a surprising 49 fouls in the game.
The Buckeyes advance to the Final Four and will next play the winner of North Carolina and Kansas, which will be decided tomorrow night. Ohio State’s next game will be played on Saturday, March 31st at a time to be announced, and will air on CBS.