NEW ORLEANS – It’s all over for the Ohio State men’s basketball team.
After leading against the Kansas Jayhawks by as much as 13 in the first half, OSU fell into a 56-55 hole with less than three minutes to play. The Jayhawks went on an 8-6 run in the closing minutes before fouling OSU sophomore guard Aaron Craft with 2.4 seconds to play, robbing OSU of a chance to tie the game with a 3-point bucket in the closing seconds.
After making the first, Craft attempted to miss the second free-throw intentionally and collect his own rebound, but was whistled for a lane violation, allowing KU (32-6) to inbound the ball and knock OSU (31-8) off, 64-62, in Saturday’s NCAA Tournament National Semifinal Game.
“I thought we played the first half very effectively,” OSU coach Thad Matta said after the game. “Second half, obviously, we didn’t shoot the ball to the level we needed to. I thought Kansas was much more active defensively, using their athleticism. We didn’t get as clean of looks as we needed.”
In his final game in Scarlet and Gray, OSU senior guard William Buford led his team with 19 points to help attempt to avenge a Dec. 10 loss at the Jayhawks’ Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan.
The 19 points pulled Buford into a tie with Jerry Lucas as the No. 3 scorer in OSU program history with 1,990 points.
Aiding the OSU effort was sophomore forward Jared Sullinger, who scored 13 points, and Craft, who added 11 points.
KU was helped to victory by junior forward Thomas Robinson’s 19 points on 8-of-18 shooting from the field. KU will play Kentucky (37-2) in Monday’s National Championship Game at the Superdome.
Scoring came slowly in the early stages of the game, but it was Kansas that found itself playing catchup. OSU used 50 percent shooting in the first 12:20 to go up, 21-13, on KU.
On the Jayhawks’ final possession before the media timeout with less than eight minutes to play in the first half, three KU shots were denied on a single possession – the last of which was stuffed by Sullinger – before it turned the ball over. Craft absorbed a charging foul for the third time in the contest to help take his team into the timeout with the momentum.
Buckeyes sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas opened the game on 0-of-4 shooting, and was visibly frustrated when he was pulled from the court after committing a foul at the 9:04 mark of the half.
Thomas did the job on defense, though, Robinson to just two points on his first six shots. Robinson dumped 21 points on OSU during the teams’ regular-season meeting Dec. 10, and finished the first half with eight points, but only four of those came while Thomas was on the floor.
When Thomas re-entered the game, he provided a quick offensive burst that was good for five points, and pushed the Buckeyes’ lead to 26-13.
KU took a timeout, but was unable to make a significant dent in the OSU lead. A lay-in by Jayhawks junior guard Travis Releford as the first half buzzer sounded made the score 34-25.
Buford paced his team with eight points while Sullinger and sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. each scored seven in the first half. OSU shot more than 46 percent from the field, hitting 12-of-26 field goal attempts. KU hit 11-of-30 attempts to keep its deficits at nine points.
The Jayhawks’ bucket to end the first half was a sign of things to come, though.
Thomas was again forced to the bench after collecting his third foul early in the second half, and OSU was forced to proceed into the half with its top postseason scorer on the bench.
KU already began to cut into OSU’s lead when Robinson delivered a thunderous dunk at 15:40 in the second half to bring the Jayhawks fans to a full-throat cheer. The bucket cut OSU’s lead to just 36-33.
Then, the game was tied at 38 with less than 14 minutes to play. OSU coach Thad Matta decided to insert Thomas back into the game, and the move backfired.
OSU responded with a 5-0 run to reclaim the lead at 43-38, but Thomas picked up a fourth foul with 11:30 to play in the game.
During the media timeout that followed, Thomas brooded behind the Buckeyes’ huddle with a towel over his head. He quickly shook his disappointment off – Thomas was the first OSU player to stand, cheer and wave that same towel in the air after a 3-pointer by Smith Jr. put OSU up, 46-40.
Robinson hit two free-throws with less than three minutes to play to put KU up, 56-55.
Thomas hit two free-throws to restore OSU’s lead, but was again forced from the game, this time with what appeared to be an injury. Despite turning his ankle after being fouled while attacking the basket, Thomas stood in and delivered two shots from the charity stripe.
As in previous NCAA Tournament games, the final minutes were nervy for OSU.
Then, Craft stole the ball on KU’s next possession and contributed a lay-in to put OSU on top, 59-56.
KU took each of the next six points in the contest to reclaim and extend its lead to 62-59 with 1:04 to play.
A steal by Robinson led to a Jayhawks breakout, but Craft thwarted the KU big man’s attempt at the basket that could have put OSU in a hole it could not recover from. OSU managed to hold the Jayhawks on that possession and took the ball back with the shot clock unplugged.
Two shots from distance to tie the game went begging, but Buford slammed the ball home with 9.6 seconds to play to make the score, 62-61.
KU senior guard Tyshawn Taylor hit two free-throws with 8.3 to play in the game and OSU was down to its last change.
The in-bound pass from Craft to Buford was stolen by the Jayhawks, but thrown away. The Jayhawks then fouled to send Craft to the line, robbing OSU of a chance for a game-tying 3-pointer.
Craft hit the first free-throw, attempted to intentionally miss the second and was whistled for a lane violation when he ran in to collect the rebound.
Then KU inbounded the ball. It was all over.
OSU shot 24 percent in the second half on 8-of-33 field goals attempts, and that was a key factor in the loss, Matta said.
“You shoot 24 percent in the second half against a really good team,” Matta said, “it’s going to be hard to win.”
Sullinger said that the loss hurt, but he was still proud of his teammates.
“If you look at this team a month ago, people like y’all (media) said we wasn’t good enough to get here,” Buford said. “I’m proud of these guys and everything they overcome.”
For the Jayhawks, it’s on to the National Championship Game against Kentucky, the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1-overall seed.
The Wildcats used a game-high 18 points and 14 rebounds from freshman forward Anthony Davis to beat West Region champion Louisville, 69-61, during the first game of the national semifinal doubleheader.
Monday’s national title game will tip at about 9:30 p.m.