Cody Cousino / Photo editor
BOSTON – After three years, the Ohio State men’s basketball team is finally elite.
After failing to advance past the round of 16 during its two previous postseason runs, No. 2-seed OSU defeated No. 6-seed Cincinnati, 81-66, Thursday to advance to the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament.
Thursday’s East Region semifinal game at TD Garden in Boston was a tale of two halves as OSU (30-7) took a 12-point lead into halftime against Cincinnati (26-11). But the Bearcats went on a 21-6 run to open the second half and take the lead. OSU didn’t panic though and managed to restore its lead, and pull away for an 81-66 victory.
UC was led by junior guard Cashmere Wright’s 18 points, but it wasn’t enough. The OSU sophomore forward tandem of Deshaun Thomas and Jared Sullinger combined for 49 points. Thomas scored 26 points while Sullinger collected a double-double with 23 points and 11 rebounds.
“Well, obviously, it was a great college basketball game,” OSU coach Thad Matta said after his team’s triumph. “We were able to put together a run there in the first half. Give Cincinnati credit – they came out and stung us to start the second half and we had to take some timeouts there to kind of refocus what we were doing on the defensive end.
“I thought we did a pretty decent job for the most part, especially when we were dialed in. But great, great win for us tonight.”
OSU advances to face No. 1-seed Syracuse Saturday. The Orange outlasted No. 4-seeded Wisconsin in the first game of the East Region doubleheader Thursday, 64-63.
Early in the OSU-UC game, it appeared OSU would easily advance to face Syracuse.
UC coach Mick Cronin used his first timeout of the game at the 12:11 mark of the first half as his Bearcats had fallen behind Matta’s Buckeyes, 15-9. Thomas was already pacing the Buckeyes with eight points by that time.
The bounces went to OSU in the first half – a shot by Thomas was blocked, but fell to Sullinger, who caught the ball in mid-air and laid it in to put the Buckeyes up, 21-15, with 8:40 to play. OSU also had a 13-6 rebounding edge against Cincinnati.
The final three minutes told the tale of UC’s play in the first half.
Cronin and the Bearcats were forced into another timeout after back-to-back 3-pointers by Thomas extended OSU’s lead to 11 at 33-22.
UC committed a turnover that led to a lay-in by freshman guard Shannon Scott immediately after the timeout.
After an offensive rebound, the Bearcats attempted to hold the ball for the last shot of the half, but a pass into the low post was fumbled by UC sophomore forward Justin Jackson and rolled out of bounds for a turnover.
OSU eventually took a 37-25 lead into the locker room after a half in which it shot at a 45 percent clip, hitting 14-of-31 attempts. Thomas was 8-of-12 from the field and dumped 20 points on Cincinnati before the break.
OSU appeared to be well on its way to advancing to play Syracuse, and UC wasn’t doing much to stop it. The Bearcats shot 38 percent and turned the ball over nine times.
Thomas helped OSU’s cause by finishing the half with a game-high 20 points. After the win, Thomas said he thought he played well against UC’s zone defense.
“I was really good … flashing and kicking it down to (Sullinger) and just getting in the open area and just knocking down shots,” Thomas said, “and that’s what got me going.”
The second half was a different story, though, as the Bearcats used a 21-6 run to cut their deficit to a single point at 41-39 by the first media timeout, and eventually take the lead.
UC senior center Yancy Gates, who finished the night with seven points, tied the game at 41 by the 15-minute mark, and the Bearcats grabbed a 49-45 lead three minutes later.
Senior guard William Buford answered with his first bucket of the game – a 3-pointer – immediately after UC went up by four points.
Sullinger said that Matta told the team during half that UC would come at them. Sullinger also said the team went into “cool guy mode” and let its guard down.
“Cincinnati is just the type of team that does not give up,” Sullinger said. “I mean, we just came out and decided to be cool guys, and they came out and they stung us, and then we got ourselves back into another basketball game.”
The battle for Ohio was raging, but not for long, as OSU had a run of its own for the Bearcats.
A bucket by sophomore guard Aaron Craft restored OSU’s lead at 53-52 at the midway point of the half, and a put-back by sophomore forward Lenzelle Smith, Jr., after a UC turnover capped a 7-0 streak that the Buckeyes back up by three points.
Smith, who finished the game with 15 points, then added a 3-pointer to make the score 58-53. As OSU came back on defense, Craft motioned to the OSU supporters for noise, and they responded.
OSU was back up by 12 with 5:21 to play. The Buckeyes then held their double-digit lead with fewer than with two minutes to play, and though many Syracuse fans had already left the arena, supporters of all teams began to head for the exits after Craft put his team up, 72-59.
Craft finished the game with 11 points.
Meanwhile, UC had a lid on its basket and missed multiple baskets down the stretch to help OSU put the game out of reach.
The Buckeyes began to remove players from the game with just more than a minute to play, and dribbled-out the clock down the stretch.
Cronin said he was proud of his team’s effort after the game, but rued the 18 turnovers it committed by game’s end.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t take care of the basketball,” Cronin said. “We gave ourselves no chance to win. They’re hard enough to guard, but with 18 turnovers, we just gave ourselves no chance.”
Sullinger said that if feels good to be in the Elite Eight, “but we still have one more game on our schedule.”
“We have to focus on (the Syracuse game),” Sullinger said. “Hopefully, the train doesn’t stop here.”
Saturday’s game against Syracuse at TD Garden in Boston is set for a 7:05 p.m. tip.