BOSTON – After the final buzzer sounded, the Ohio State men’s basketball team leapt high and far.
These were celebratory jumps and chest-bumps. They were higher than any attempt for a rebound or a basket, and the smiles that accompanied them unmistakable – they were the smiles of a team headed to the Final Four.
Because that’s what the second-seeded Buckeyes were on Saturday at TD Garden in Boston – a team that defeated top-seeded Syracuse, 77-70, in the NCAA Tournament East Region Final to gain passage to the Final Four in New Orleans in a week.
In a game marred by questionable officiating decisions and foul trouble for both the Orange (34-3) and the Buckeyes (31-7), OSU outlasted its opponent in the nervy, closing moments of the game. After missing most of the first half with foul trouble, sophomore forward Jared Sullinger ended the night with a game-high 19 points. Sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas added 14 points and fellow sophomore Lenzelle Smith, Jr., had 18 points of his own.
OSU, which advances to the Final Four for the first time since coach Thad Matta led the team to the National Championship game in 2007, does not yet have an opponent for its next game.
The Buckeyes will play the winner of the Midwest Region Final between top-seeded North Carolina and second-seeded Kansas in the Final Four on Saturday. The Tar Heels and Jayhawks will tip Sunday at 5:05 p.m. in St. Louis, Mo.
“Obviously, I thought a high-level college basketball game, probably the way it’s supposed to be in the Regional Finals,” Matta said after the game. “We beat a tremendous team tonight.”
The Buckeyes bumped and hassled their way to an early 9-8 lead, which held through the first media timeout. Sophomore guard Aaron Craft had a hand in Orange senior guard Scoop Jardine’s face early and often.
Buckeyes starters were falling fast, though – guard Smith Jr. took a blow to the head and went back to the locker room before the first media timeout.
At the 13:42 mark, Sullinger was slapped with his second foul of the half and forced to retreat to the bench.
Smith Jr. would return minutes later, but the significance of Sullinger’s absence from the court wasn’t lost on Matta. When play stopped at the 11:22 mark of the first half with the Buckeyes leading, 16-15, Matta walked across the court and shouted to the CBS television broadcasting team to see if the correct call was made.
The broadcasters appeared to indicate the call was incorrect, and Matta stomped on the floor in frustration.
Sullinger zipped his warm-up jacket up – he was in for a long break from the action.
The player said he wasn’t expecting Matta to call him back to the bench.
“These guys have played without me before, so they know what they have to do,” Sullinger said. “We just kept competing on the defensive end. I think that’s what won the basketball game.”
Matta said the team pulled together after Sullinger was forced to the bench.
“It’s something we’ve been preaching with this basketball team, and came down (in) the second half to guys making big plays,” Matta said.
The game was called tight both ways, and each team had multiple players in foul trouble. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was called for a technical that led to a made free-throw for senior guard William Buford.
Boeheim, who said after the game that he thought the technical foul was the first called on him about three years, declined to comment on the officiating decisions during his post-game press conference.
Boeheim wasn’t getting the foul calls, but his team’s famed zone defense was working just fine. The Orange forced OSU into a shot clock violation with less than four minutes to play in the half.
The Buckeyes stumbled without Sullinger in the lineup, scoring just 13 points after his departure. Despite the lack of scoring, OSU held Syracuse in check and the teams went into half tied at 29.
The Buckeyes shot just more than 34 percent, connecting on 10-of-29 attempts in the first half. The Orange were just as ineffective and shot at a clip of nearly 35 percent.
Senior guard William Buford and Thomas each scored six points in the opening 20 minutes to pace OSU while the Orange were led by Jardine’s seven points.
Officiating decisions continued to impact the game after the intermission as Orange freshman forward Rakeem Christmas was whistled for his fourth foul and had to leave the game.
OSU took advantage and quickly built a five-point lead with less than three minutes gone in the second half, forcing an Orange timeout.
OSU’s quick start became a 13-3 run that saw it extend the advantage to 45-36 with 13:51 to play. Sullinger was back, and the entire building knew it. The big man dumped six points on the Orange during that run.
All the calls were going the Buckeyes’ way now. The many thousands of orange-colored T-shirts sat quietly as the Scarlet and Gray-clad OSU supporters that dotted the stands roared with approval at the very top of their lungs.
But the fouls kept coming.
Both teams were in the penalty by the 12:09 mark of the half, and OSU had only connected on 15-of-25 attempts from the charity stripe.
Syracuse used its bonus free-throw attempts to narrow its deficit before back-to-back buckets by Jardine cut OSU’s lead to 52-50 with 8:01 to play.
Then Smith Jr. and Orange junior guard Brandon Triche traded 3-point baskets with less than seven minutes to play.
A crowd of 19,026 was rocking, the end was nearing and OSU held a one-point advantage.
Given the high stakes of the game, some might have expected a back-and-forth slugfest down the stretch, but what fans got was a free-throw free-for-all. Sullinger made the most of the chances, though, and used the double bonus to push OSU to a 60-55 edge with 3:45 to play.
A bucket by Thomas with less than two minutes to play pushed OSU out in front by seven.
But it wasn’t over yet.
Craft fouled out of the game with 48.8 seconds to play after he fouled to send Triche to the line. Triche connected on two free-throws to make the score 68-64.
Before leaving the court, Craft said he issued instructions to each teammate that would remain in the game.
“I had a couple words for everybody,” Craft said, “but I don’t know if they were too good. I was just trying to keep us all together (and) help everyone understand the game wasn’t over.”
Smith Jr. made it a six-point game on OSU’s next possession, but Orange sophomore guard Dion Waiters completed a 3-point play to halve the deficit.
Syracuse continued to foul after that point and it became evident that the Buckeyes would need to earn their ticket to New Orleans at the foul line.
Trailing by four with the shot clock unplugged, Triche pulled up for a 10-foot jumped that clanked around the iron and was rebounded by OSU.
Smith Jr. went back to the line and connected on two additional free-throws to make the score 73-67.
The Orange missed their next shot.
That was it.
In what could have been his last game, Buford iced the contest with two more free-throws. And Thomas tacked on two more.
Cue the celebration for Ohio State, and the leaping.
And don’t forget the hoisting of the East Region Championship Trophy, and cutting the nets off the basket.
Thomas said he planned to sleep with the portion of the net that he cut off.
“(The win) just feels great,” Thomas said. “We’re going to try to cherish this game.”
“It feels great,” he said. “Nobody on this team has ever made it this far. In past years, I got put on the Sweet 16. To make it this far is kind of a relief to know that hard work pays off.
“We’ve been working hard throughout the summer and throughout the season, and to make it to the Final Four is just great for us.”
Start time for OSU’s National Semifinal game has not been announced.