Cody Cousino / Photo editor
BOSTON – By the time the Ohio State men’s basketball team’s dressing room was open to media after its Saturday win against Syracuse, the words “National Championship” had been inscribed on a whiteboard for all to see.
The Buckeyes survived a tightly officiated contest in which 49 fouls were called to win the region and punch its ticket to the Final Four in New Orleans with a 77-70 win against top-seeded Syracuse (34-3) in the NCAA Tournament East Regional Championship Saturday at TD Garden in Boston.
Contrary to what the whiteboard indicated, Matta said the team was trying to cherish the win.
“I’ve been a head coach now for 12 years,” Matta said. “And the one thing I’ve always tried to do is enjoy the special moments.”
Matta also said the team would have additional time to savor their victory because it didn’t know who their next opponent would be, but as of Sunday night, that has changed.
Kansas, the No. 2-seeded Midwest Region champion, is standing directly in the Buckeyes’ path to the title game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
The Jayhawks beat the Tarheels, 80-67, Sunday to book their trip to New Orleans.
The matchup between OSU and KU will be a familiar one as the teams met on Dec. 10 at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan. The Jayhawks took the regular season meeting, 78-67, behind junior center Thomas Robinson’s 21-point output. OSU sophomore forward Jared Sullinger, who was named the East Region’s Most Outstanding Player Sunday, did not play in the game due to back spasms.
OSU and Kansas are joined in the Final Four by Louisville, the West Region champion, and Kentucky, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed and champion of the South Region.
After Saturday’s win against the Orange, Matta said the Buckeyes will begin preparing for its national semifinal game on Monday.
Progression to the Final Four was in doubt early in the East Regional Championship.
OSU sophomore forward Jared Sullinger sat in his track suit for all but 6:18 of the first half due to early foul trouble. By game’s end, Sullinger had tallied a game-high 19 points – nine of his points came from the foul line.
Sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr. scored 18 points and shot 50 percent from 3-point range, hitting 3-of-6 attempts. Sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas, who collected four fouls of his own, finished the game with 14 points.
Sullinger was the first victim of the tightly-called affair by game officials John Higgins, Michael Nance and Thomas O’Neill.
With 13:42 to play in the first half and OSU leading, Sullinger was slapped with his second foul of the game and was forced to the bench.
When play stopped at the 11:22 mark of the first half with the Buckeyes leading, 18-15, 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.
Initially, the Buckeyes stumbled on offense without Sullinger in the lineup, scoring just 16 points after his departure. Despite the lack of scoring, OSU’s defense held Syracuse in check and the teams went into half tied at 29.
Sullinger said the defensive effort sustained his team’s attempt at the regional championship.
“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.”
OSU appeared to be rolling to the title in the second half after building a 10-point lead, but the Orange slowly chipped away despite road blocks created by the referees’ decisions. Syracuse was hampered by freshman forward Rakeem Christmas’s fourth foul.
Christmas, who finished the game with six points and two rebounds, had to leave the game.
Orange senior guard Scoop Jardine, who finished the night with 14 points and six assists, refused to blame his team’s loss on officiating, saying that OSU deserved credit for the win.
“Without the referees, (OSU) played a good game, and that’s all I’ve got to say about that,” Jardine said. “We’re not going to blame the refs. I think we had a chance to win the game no matter what, with or without the refs.”
OSU’s quick start became a 13-3 run that saw it extend the advantage to 45-36 with 14:05 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 at that point. 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 top of their lungs.
Syracuse cut its deficit to one point, but fell short.
The Buckeyes made their free throws in the closing seconds, and Syracuse missed several of the shots that comprised its last-ditch effort.
In what could have been his last game, Buford iced the contest with two more free throws. Thomas then tacked on two more with less than two seconds to play.
It was all over but the trophy hoisting and donning of championship T-shirts and ball caps.
OSU had out-lasted a 34-win Syracuse team. It survived Sullinger for the majority of the first half, and Craft in the dying moments of the game – all in the midst of having 20 fouls called against it.
Buford said the win felt great considering no current player on the team has advanced to the Final Four.
“To make it this far is kind of a relief to know that hard work pays off,” he said. “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.”
It’s time for OSU to get back to work.
“We’ve got a week to prepare for (Kansas),” Matta said. “And get ready to go.”
OSU’s national semifinal game against KU will tip at 9 p.m.