Michael Periatt / Asst. sports editor
PITTSBURGH – Despite missing long stretches of Ohio State’s third-round NCAA Tournament game against Gonzaga due to foul trouble, sophomore forward Jared Sullinger came through in the closing minutes of the game when his team needed him.
After the game, OSU coach Thad Matta and a teammate hailed Sullinger’s performance as “clutch.”
It may have seemed to some that any possibility of Sullinger getting into a offensive rhythm was squelched after he picked up his second foul of the game early in the first half, and a then third foul just minutes into the second half.
Sullinger, who played 26 minutes in the game, griped to the referees after both the second and third fouls were called against him, but said that OSU assistant coach Dave Dickerson kept him calm on the bench.
“(Dickerson) told me to play my game and stop worrying about the foul calling or the calls they (were) making. Just play,” Sullinger said. “I think that’s what got me through.”
Sullinger stayed cool enough to help the Buckeyes to a 73-66 win against No. 7-seed Gonzaga (26-7). He contributed six points in the final four minutes of play to help put the game out of reach and send the Buckeyes to the Sweet 16 for a third consecutive year.
With the win, OSU advances to play the winner of Sunday’s East Region third-round game between No. 3-seeded Florida State and No. 6-seeded Cincinnati. The fourth-round matchup will take place at TD Bank Garden in Boston, Mass., Thursday.
Prior to the closing, nervy moments of the game, the Buckeyes (29-7) were faring fine without their big man and led by as many as 10 points in the second half.
Gonzaga, which posted 25 wins in the regular season and West Coast Conference Tournament, still had some fight in it and tied the game at 61 with 3:48 to play in regulation.
The crowd was turning on the Buckeyes as the possibility of an upset loomed, and Sullinger had provided only 12 points to help prevent an early-tournament exit for his team.
Sullinger’s responded to a game-tying 3-pointer from Bulldogs junior forward Elias Harris with jump shot to re-establish the Buckeyes lead.
A free-throw by OSU sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas made the score 64-61. Later, Sullinger backed down Gonzaga’s 7-foot, 260-pound center Robert Sacre and kissed a bank shot off the glass to put OSU up, 66-61, with 1:03 to play.
Buckeyes fans went wild and OSU was back on its way to an NCAA Tournament win.
After the game, Sacre said he let his guard down against Sullinger.
“We were in zone (defense), so it was easier for him, I think, to just duck in, get easier touches,” Sacre said. “But that’s basketball. He’s a great player.”
Harris missed a shot on the other end, and Sullinger hauled in the rebound. Sacre was forced to foul the smaller Sullinger, sending him to the free throw line.
The Buckeye big man made both shots from the charity stripe to push the Buckeyes’ lead to 68-61.
Gonzaga cut the lead to four points, but with only 12 seconds remaining, senior guard William Buford and sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. combined for three points to put OSU up 73-66, and that score held.
OSU coach Thad Matta said after the game that Sullinger, who finished the game with 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting, is a winner that the team will “ride” down the stretch.
“I think with the foul trouble and sitting as much as he did the in the first half, you know, it would appear that he didn’t have a great day,” Matta said. “Down the stretch, we wanted to get the ball in his hands. … We were running a couple things our of the post that proved to be pretty good for us, like in the last four minutes of the game.
“He’s pretty clutch down the stretch there and hit some big free-throws for us, as well.”
Smith Jr. agreed with Matta, and also used the word “clutch” to describe Sullinger’s performance.
“That’s what good players do,” Smith Jr. said. “If you shoot enough shots, they’re going to start falling down for you.”
Ahead of the team’s trip to the Northeast, Matta said Sullinger is very much engaged in the team.
“I thought (Sullinger) was really, really tuned in,” Matta said. “… When he was sitting out, he was into the game. He was into timeouts.”
Sullinger said he isn’t thinking beyond the games in Boston.
“We know (the Final Four) was one of our goals of the season,” he said. “We just got to keep playing hard.”
OSU will now wait to see whether it will play Cincinnati or Florida State on Thursday with a berth in the Elite Eight on the line. Opening tip will be at either 7:27 p.m., or 9:57 p.m.