Ohio State cleared a major hurdle late Thursday night with a resounding NCAA Sweet 16 win.
The second-seeded Buckeyes got 26 points from Deshaun Thomas and 23 points and 11 rebounds from Jared Sullinger in taking an 81-66 win over No. 6 seed (and bitter instate rival) Cincinnati in an NCAA East Region semifinal Thursday night before a crowd of 18,896 at Boston’s TD Garden.
The Buckeyes (30-7) advance to Saturday’s East Region final to face No. 1 seed Syracuse (34-2) here in Boston (7:05 p.m., CBS). The Orange took a dramatic 64-63 win over No. 4 seed Wisconsin earlier Thursday. The winner on Saturday will move on to the Final Four next weekend in New Orleans.
OSU led by as many as 13 late in the first half before allowing UC to surge into a four-point lead early in the second half. But the Buckeyes went on a 17-1 run to regain control and win going away.
“Obviously, that was a great college basketball game,” said OSU coach Thad Matta. “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.
“Once we got that going, I thought it generated some offense for us. We were able to make the plays we had to make down the stretch.”
The Sweet 16 had been Ohio State’s Waterloo the last two years in the NCAA Tournament with losses to lower seeds Tennessee in 2010 and Kentucky last year.
“It feels tremendous,” Sullinger said. “Coach Matta has been through two Sweet 16s where the train kind of stopped. Well, it did stop. And we wanted to make sure that this train was going to keep rolling.
I mean, it's tremendous to be in a situation like this, and it's a blessing, but at the same time we can't lose sight of focus.”
This game also represented a long-awaited NCAA Tournament match-up with Cincinnati. The Bearcats knocked OSU in the 1961 and 1962 national title games. Saturday will actually be the 50-year anniversary of that 1962 defeat. The schools have met once since then, a neutral court game won by the Buckeyes in December 2006.
Thomas had 20 of his points in the first half. He ended up 10 of 17 shooting (3 of 5 on threes) and also had seven rebounds.
Asked what led to his latest big night, Thomas said, “Just having my mind right. I mean, trusting in coach and my teammates and hitting open spots. I was really good in that zone, flashing and kicking it down to Sully and just getting in the open area and just knocking down shots, and that's what got me going.”
Sullinger was 7 of 13 from the field and 9 of 10 from the foul line for OSU. He credited Thomas’ offensive explosion for opening things up for him.
“When you've got somebody like Deshaun that can post the basketball, score off jump hooks, hit the open shot at the three‑point line, and he pretty much catches everything that you throw at him, he pretty much makes me look a lot better than what I am,” Sullinger said. “I think when Deshaun is hitting shots like the way he was hitting today in the first half, and even when he was open in the second half, he was still knocking them down.
“I think it makes it so much easier for me to find Deshaun because nobody knows where he's at but me. There's sometimes he's at the block, sometimes he's at three‑point line, sometimes he's at the mid‑post area. I think Deshaun just makes me look a lot better than what I am.”
Lenzelle Smith Jr. added 15 points, going 6 of 7 from the floor and 3 of 4 from behind the arc.
“Guys stepped up tonight and made some shots,” Smith said. “It feels great, but this is not what we came here for. We have another game to go and we’re trying to make it to New Orleans. Right now, you take this win and keep battling because it’s not over.”
Aaron Craft chipped in 11 points, six steals and five assists for the Buckeyes.
“This is what every kid dreams of – a chance to play for a chance in the Final Four,” Craft said. “We’re a different team than the last couple of years. This is our year and we’re just trying to make the most of it.”
William Buford had an off night. He finished with four points and made just 1 of 8 shots from the field.
Cashmere Wright led Cincinnati (26-11) with 18 points, while Sean Kilpatrick added 15 and JaQuon Parker had 10. The Bearcats committed 18 costly turnovers in the loss.
“We got down early, but we made a tremendous comeback,” said UC coach Mick Cronin. “At the end of the day, we didn't take care of the basketball. We're a low turnover team. We outshot our percentage tonight. We've been shooting 46 percent, 46 and a half; we shot 39 from three. But too many turnovers. We gave ourselves no chance to win. They're hard enough to guard, but with 18 turnovers we just gave ourselves no chance.”
Ohio State led 37-25 at halftime as Thomas hit 8 of 12 shots (including 3 of 5 on threes) and tallied 20 points. Sullinger had 10 points and nine rebounds as everything seemed to be going Ohio State’s way.
But things quickly unraveled to start the second half as UC fed off five OSU turnovers to go on a 24-8 run and seize a four-point lead at 49-45 with 12:09 left in the game. Kilpatrick started the run with a jumper and a pair of threes. Sullinger then had a turnover leading to a jumper by Yancy Gates. Buford had a turnover leading to a Wright layup. Craft then had a turnover, allowing JaQuon Parker to go in for a layup. Parker’s runner seconds later tied the game at 41-41.
Wright then gave UC the lead on a three to make it 44-43. Buford then had another turnover leading to a Dion Dixon layup and a 46-43 UC lead with 12:09 left in the game. The lead went to four at 49-45 after Wright splashed a three from the right wing. That capped the run. UC still led by four after Gates completed a three-point play to make it 52-48 with 11:34 left.
But this is when OSU embarked on its 17-1 run to take control.
Sullinger was fouled twice and made 3 of 4 free throws. Craft then hit a clutch 14-footer to help OSU regain the lead. Smith followed by tipping in a Buford miss for a 55-52 lead with 9:50 left. That man Smith stepped up again, taking a pass from Craft and burying a key three-pointer from the left wing for a 58-53 lead with 7:51 left.
“We had a nice lead on them,” Smith said. “I don’t know if we thought they were going to stop fighting, but we kind of got into a relaxed mode. They came out fighting. Once we saw that, we got back on our horse and kept fighting.”
OSU came out of a timeout and Craft hit a three from the right wing to make it 61-53 with 6:58 left. Sullinger then caught a long rebound and outletted to Thomas, who pulled it out. He found Sullinger and hit a wide open Smith under the basket for a layup and a 63-53 lead. Sullinger then made a running hook for a 65-53 bulge with 5:52 left.
“Fortunately, we got a couple of steals and they missed a couple shots,” Craft said of the run. “It worked out for us. It definitely started on defense. You have to give them credit for knocking down some shots. When we get stops, we can get some easy looks in transition. That’s when we’re at our best.”
Craft made a free throw to make it a 13-point game at 69-56 with 2:51 left. Sullinger hit a pair for a 15-point lead at 74-59 with 1:25 left.
Cincinnati scored the game’s first five points before OSU came alive. Smith and Thomas hit early threes as OSU went up 15-9 with 12:18 left in the half. The lead went to nine at 27-18 after Thomas tallied off a one-hander after a steal by Shannon Scott.
The red hot Thomas then hit a pair of threes 26 seconds apart to push the lead to 11 at 33-22 with 2:12 left in the half. Scott then converted a Smith steal for a layup and OSU’s biggest lead of the half at 13 (35-22) with 2:09 left in the half.
Wright splashed a three after a UC offensive rebound but Sullinger capped the scoring in the half with a tip-in with 1:17 left to put the Buckeyes up 37-25 at the half.
* Ohio State was among four Big Ten teams that reached the Sweet 16. The Buckeyes were joined by Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan State. But Wisconsin and MSU fell by the wayside with losses on Thursday.
The state of Ohio also boasted four Sweet 16 teams with OSU, Cincinnati, Xavier and Ohio U., marking the first time a state has produced four Sweet 16 teams. Xavier and OU will play in separate games Friday night.
* This is OSU’s sixth NCAA trip in seven seasons under Matta. Under Matta, OSU is now 13-5 in NCAA Tournament games. Matta guided the 2007 OSU team to the national championship game before it lost to defending national champion Florida. His overall record as a college coach in the NCAA is 19-9.
In 12 years as a college head coach, Matta’s teams are 66-16 all-time in the month of March. That includes a 43-11 mark in eight years at OSU.
That record also includes a 27-6 all-time mark in conference tournaments, including six conference tournament titles in his first 12 years as a head coach. At OSU, his teams have posted a record of 16-5 in the Big Ten tournament.
Adding those conference tournament records with Matta’s NCAA record and his 5-0 mark in leading OSU to an NIT championship in 2008, he is 49-15 all-time in postseason play as a college coach and 34-10 in the postseason at OSU.
* This is OSU’s fourth Sweet 16 appearance in six years under Matta. Ohio State is now 13-6 all-time in NCAA regional semifinal games, although they had lost their last two such games to Tennessee in 2010 and Kentucky last year.
* OSU’s 30-win total is the third-most in a season in school history. The record is 35 in 2006-07, followed by 34 last year and 29 previously in 2009-10.
* This is Ohio State’s 28th NCAA Tournament appearance. OSU is now 49-26 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, including 10 Final Four appearances and the 1960 national championship.
This is Cincinnati’s 27th NCAA appearance. The Bearcats have a record of 43-25 in the Big Dance. This was UC’s first Sweet 16 trip since 2001 and its best season under six-year head coach Mick Cronin.
* Ohio State is now 6-4 all-time against Cincinnati, although the Bearcats won the only two previous NCAA Tournament meetings with wins in the 1961 and 1962 national championship games. OSU and Cincinnati have met once since that 1962 game. OSU, then ranked No. 4, took a 72-50 win over Cincinnati on a neutral floor in Indianapolis on Dec. 16, 2006.
* This was the 32nd time in 35 games this season and 66th time in 72 career games Sullinger has scored in double figures. This was also Sullinger’s 35th career double-double and 16th this season.
* Thomas’ 26-point game marked the 44th time in his career he has scored in double figures. He has done it in 33 of OSU’s 37 games this year.
* Ohio State advances to the East Region championship game against Syracuse on Saturday at 7:05 p.m. (CBS). The Buckeyes are 4-1 all-time against Syracuse. The last match-up came in the Preseason NIT on Nov. 21, 2007 with the Buckeyes taking a 79-65 win at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s going to be a great match-up,” Craft said. “They are a great basketball team. It will be a lot of fun to play against a team like that with a great coach (Jim Boeheim) and a great atmosphere like this. They had a lot of fans here and you could hear them.”
* Click here for the box score.
Here are postgame interview links with OSU’s five starters:
Postgame Press Conference
Here is a transcript of OSU’s postgame press conference with Matta, Craft and Sullinger:
COACH MATTA: Well, obviously a great college basketball game. 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. And once we got that going, I thought it generated some offense for us. We were able to make the plays we had to make down the stretch. When you play a team that is as multidimensional as Cincinnati is, it can take its toll on you. And the biggest thing was challenging threes. Half the shots they took tonight were threes. 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.
Q. Deshaun, just talk a little bit about especially the first half you really seemed to get in a groove. What got you going in this game tonight?
DESHAUN THOMAS: Having my mind right. I mean, trusting in coach and my teammates and hitting open spots. I was really good in that zone, flashing and kicking it down to Sulli (Jared Sullinger) and just getting in the open area and just knocking down shots, and that's what got me going.
Q. For Jared, can you describe what happened to start the second half, as Thad put it, when you were dialed in you were pretty good? And then what happened when you did get dialed in? What was said that got you dialed in again after they hit you with that run?
JARED SULLINGER: We've got two types of basketball teams: We've got the cool guys and then the blue collar guys. I thought to start the second half we got into the cool guy mode and we kind of let our guard down. Coach Matta basically told us before we started the second half that they was going to come at us with everything they had because Cincinnati is just the type of team that does not give up. 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.
Q. You can give that kind of answer to me. That was good stuff right there. I'd love to know if you guys think you're the best forwards in the country. I don't know if you'll answer that, but do you think you complement each other as well as any two forwards in the country?
DESHAUN THOMAS: I mean, we work well together. I give us credit. I think we're one of the top forwards in the country in my eyes. Playing well with Jared in the summer, we was playing real well together, and Coach Jent was telling us you and Jared can play off each other very well, so I give us a great compliment being one of the top forwards in the country.
JARED SULLINGER: When you've got somebody like Deshaun that can post the basketball, score off jump hooks, hit the open shot at the three‑point line, and he pretty much catches everything that you throw at him, he pretty much makes me look a lot better than what I am. I think when Deshaun is hitting shots like the way he was hitting today in the first half, and even when he was open in the second half, he was still knocking them down.
I think it makes it so much easier for me to find Deshaun because nobody knows where he's at but me. There's sometimes he's at the block, sometimes he's at three‑point line, sometimes he's at the mid‑post area. I think Deshaun just makes me look a lot better than what I am.
Q. Could you talk a little bit about Lenzelle's (Smith) game tonight? He really had a strong game.
JARED SULLINGER: Lenzelle, when he gets going, this whole basketball team, we kind of feed off of Lenzelle. I mean, when Lenzelle pretty much came to the huddle, he kind of spoke throughout the huddle, and I thought that was tremendous. I think we responded off his leadership today and his defensive intensity and just his ability to get to the basket and share the basketball.
Q. For Jared, in that 17‑1 run in the second half, there were a couple of three‑pointers for you guys, but mostly it seemed like you made a commitment to go pound it inside and either get to the line or get the easy baskets. Was that the thinking at that point?
JARED SULLINGER: Around that time I think we was in a one‑on‑one situation, so we was just trying to attack the basket and not settle for a good shotand turn down a good shot to get a great shot. I thought Craft's ability to get to the rim and Deshaun knocking down the shots really kind of got us going, and we knew they was going to double in the post after they doubled Deshaun the first play of the game.
I mean, we just read their defense really well tonight, and you've got to give that to the coaches and putting us in situations where we can succeed.
Q. I know you decided to come back to college this year in order to make another run with Ohio State. Can you talk about that decision now that you're one win away from the Final Four? Do you feel like you kind of redeemed yourself with that decision and you want to keep it going?
JARED SULLINGER: The decision was to come back to make another run, but also it's just‑‑ the basketball team last year really had a touch of my heart. There's some guys where they're pretty much family. I mean, I really couldn't let my family down like that, and I thought that was tremendous on their part for accepting me the way I am.
But I think as far as redeeming myself, it feels good to be in the Elite 8, but we still have one more game on our schedule, and we have to focus on that. Hopefully the train doesn't stop here.
Q. Jared, that idea, though, I know you had the Brandon Knight poster in your bathroom last year with losing in the Sweet 16. You've now made it that one step further. I know you don't want to stop, but to be here today instead of a losing locker room, how does that feel?
JARED SULLINGER: It feels tremendous. Coach Matta has been through two Sweet 16s where the train kind of stopped. Well, it did stop. And we wanted to make sure that this train was going to keep rolling.
I mean, it's tremendous to be in a situation like this, and it's a blessing, but at the same time we can't lose sight of focus.
Q. Deshaun, just to sort of double back on this, do you feel like you and Jared have gotten better over the course of the season, sort of playing off each other and helping to create things for each other?
DESHAUN THOMAS: Yeah, I think we've gotten way better. We've learned that teams are double teaming us and playing the right guy out of the double‑team. He seen me flashing, now they double‑teaming me, so now I see him flashing. So I think that's way better. I think we're here as a team, we keep moving the ball and then we play off each other. And that's what me and Jared, we keep doing. We're just successful at that.
Q. Jared, what are your initial thoughts about facing Syracuse on Saturday?
JARED SULLINGER: I know we're going to face a 2‑3 zone. There's no hiding that. They're very long. They're very athletic. I mean, they can get up and down with the best of them. So it's going to be a game that we're going to have to try to control the tempo in, and also we're going to have to score and execute our offense even though they're playing 2‑3 zone. We can't just sit back and let them punch us. We've got to throw the first punches. Not literally, but...
Q. Talk a little bit about defensively you guys turned them over 18 times and they are not a team that has turned the ball over, 13 steals. A lot of that had to do with Aaron, but did you think coming in you could do that against them? Talk about the defensive effort.
COACH MATTA: Well, what we wanted to do was be in position and force them to make quick decisions. A lot of the tape we had seen of their opponents, teams hadn't‑‑ we told each other, just be sound, and we weren't sound to start the second half, but just be in the right spots at the right time. They're going to make shots. They're a high‑powered, offensive team. They've got plenty of guys who can score. That was where our minds were of just positioning, faking, staying, doing those things, and I thought our guys did a pretty good job except the eight minutes to start the second half.
Q. Did you have any inkling at halftime that the cool guys were going to show up? And what finally got them back to being the blue collar guys? Was it you or was it the change in score?
COACH MATTA: I might have had a little to do with it in the time‑out. But yeah, I think what Jared was saying, we let our guard down, and the one thing we had seen with Cincinnati was they can come at you in waves, and the game plan was never to let them get some consecutive scores. When we did that, they had the momentum going on their side, and we weren't able to control it. It affected us a little bit offensively, as well. We had some costly turnovers there, I think three in the first four minutes, that as we told our guys, if you turn it over against Cincinnati, they are scoring at the other end, and they did.
To these guys' credit, they did a good job playing themselves out of it and really got reconnected out there, which was great to see.
Q. We have sort of seen your team this year, that you're great in stretches and then at times not as great. I don't know if we defined it as cool guy and blue collar guy, that's pretty good, but that was happening in that eight‑minute stretch to begin the second half. What did it feel like for you? And you were talking about in timeouts you wanted to get them out of that.
COACH MATTA: Well, I think a lot of it had to do with just youth. I keep saying I'm not going to beat a dead horse here, but we've got one senior, one junior, and the rest are freshmen and sophomores. We talk about maturity with these guys, and I think we've grown in that area. But we need a little bit of a wake‑up call there.
The thing I don't want to do is take anything away from Cincinnati because they're a really, really good basketball team. And we knew they were going to make a run on us, and we just weren't able to stop it when we wanted to.
But like I said, I give our guys credit. They played themselves through it.
Q. What difference have you seen in Lenzelle the past couple week at NCAA Tournament? It seems like he's playing with a lot more aggression and confidence, especially tonight the way he went to the basket.
COACH MATTA: Yeah, I think in a lot of ways Lenzelle is like a freshman because he didn't get a ton of playing time last year and it was pretty much spot play. He's worked very hard. I think the biggest thing‑‑ I talked to Lenzelle about it before we left Columbus, of just make sure all your thoughts are about the team, and when Lenzelle is dialed in, he really, really sees things in terms of thinking how do I help the other four guys on the floor, because he can go into his own world and say I've got to get myself‑‑ when he's thinking that broader vision, he plays great basketball.
Q. Just your initial thoughts on Syracuse, and also, given all the off‑the‑court distractions they've had this year, what does it say about Coach Boeheim and the team that they're here and have persevered?
COACH MATTA: Well, I think when you look at Coach Boeheim and the job he has done, I hate to say this, since I was a little kid, just watching Syracuse year in, year out, all the great players, all the great teams they've had. Obviously they're playing at a high level, and they've got a great cause. I've always said that. I think you see teams in the NCAA Tournament that there's a cause, something that has happened. And we talked about this today in a meeting. What Mick (Cronin) has done at Cincinnati since early December, those guys had a cause. He's done a great job with them. And I think Coach Boeheim has done that. We've got a heck of a challenge on Saturday.
Q. Just Jared and Deshaun combining for 49 points, did you feel like that was something that you could get out of them in this game, and did you feel like Deshaun might be a match‑up problem for them coming into this?
COACH MATTA: We did. But conversely we thought they may try to‑‑ and they did, they were moving him all around and getting him involved in pick‑and‑rolls with the reverse size effect. But no, I thought those guys really combined, and they were connected. The one Jared threw the hook pass out, Deshaun hit a three late in the first half, they were on a rope together. They've been that way here as of late.
Q. Could you reflect a little bit on‑‑ I know you don't have much time to think about it, but making past this barrier to the next round and what it's like dealing with that quick turnaround of the high and then back focused on the next game?
COACH MATTA: Yeah. Well, I'm obviously excited to get past it. I think as you get to this stage, a lot of it, just the emotion of continuing to advance really centralizes your guys' thinking and focuses their thinking. We've been on a stretch here, quite honestly, dating back to when we began February, through the Big Ten season, and with the conference tournaments last weekend. We're kind of in the same boat here. We talk a lot about the quick turnarounds, and I'll be honest, we went into this game thinking Cincinnati was probably going to play a zone. We spent a majority of our time this week going against zone. And I told our guys, trying to motivate them, when we play Syracuse on Saturday, this will pay off for us.
Q. Two things: Just the idea that this is where the train did stop for the past two years, does that add anything more to being up here and being a winner on this night? And then the last ten minutes, the defense, steals, Deshaun had a block, you guys took a charge, just that last ten minutes, the defensive stretch.
COACH MATTA: Well, like I said, it's obviously a very, very good feeling to be down to eight tomorrow night, whenever the games end, with a lot at stake. I mean, so much is put on now, the NCAA Tournament.
I couldn't be happier for this team. If you would have told me in November this team was going to win 30 games, I would have said there's no way we're going to win 30 games. And to their credit, they've done a great job of putting us in this position. I think the last ten minutes we challenged them. It was time. And we kept talking about in the four minutes, we need four stops in this four minutes, we need three stops in this time, and they did that.
Q. Do you have to have a conversation with William (Buford) just because of the struggles he had tonight? He did some other things, but he also had‑‑ he missed shots again and he had a turnover, big turnover there when they were making their run. Are you concerned about his mindset going into the regional final on Saturday?
COACH MATTA: I say this, and I said it at halftime: William Buford played his best defense in his career at Ohio State that first 20 minutes, and that was something that we had really challenged him in guarding (Sean) Kilpatrick. I think from the standpoint of did he have a great offensive game? No. But you know what, that was a huge three he hit during the second half.
I think he will be ready to go. For him, being the only senior on this basketball team, as crazy as it sounds, he's the only guy that lost two years ago in St.Louis to Tennessee. I mean, he's the only guy that was on that team. For him to get past this, I'm very excited and got great confidence he'll play well on Saturday.
Q. You talked about this a bit yesterday. I was just wondering if you could reflect a little bit on the year for the state of Ohio in terms of the success all the programs have had and knocking out one of your fellow Ohio teams.
COACH MATTA: Yeah. I think that‑‑ I was at Xavier many years ago, and if I'm not mistaken, one time we had three in the Sweet 16 or something. I know it was the year Kent State‑‑ I don't know if it was Sweet 16 or round of 32, whatever it was. Yeah, I think Ohio is a great state. Obviously very happy. Being at Ohio State, I love to see, from Division III teams, Division II, we've got greatthose teams, as well. And I think it speaks volumes to the high school coaches, AAU coaches, all those guys, and all the great college coaches you have here.