PITTSBURGH – Ohio State men’s basketball coach Thad Matta said Friday that his team’s focus was on surviving and advancing in the NCAA Tournament, and that’s exactly what it did against Gonzaga.
The Buckeyes (29-7) will play in a third consecutive Sweet 16 after defeating No. 7-seed Gonzaga, 73-66, in a third-round NCAA Tournament East Region game Saturday at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
The OSU sophomore tandem of guard Aaron Craft and forward Deshaun Thomas pulled the Buckeyes out of a first-half rut and scored 17 and 18 points, respectively. It was sophomore big man Jared Sullinger, who finished the game with 18 points, that put the game away in the closing moments.
Sullinger helped sink Gonzaga after the Bulldogs fought back to tie the game, 61-61, with fewer than four minutes to play. Sullinger dumped six points on the Bulldogs in the final minute of play, including a lay-in against Gonzaga’s 7-foot senior center, Robert Sacre.
Senior guard William Buford and sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., combined for five free-throws to help put the game on ice and advance the Buckeyes.
OSU will play the winner of No. 6-seed Cincinnati and No. 3-seed Florida State in Boston, Mass., in the Sweet 16. The Bearcats, one of four teams from the state of Ohio to advance to the tournament’s third round, is scheduled to tip their game against the Seminoles Sunday at 9:40 p.m., in Nashville, Tenn.
In the early moments, OSU’s scoring came via the 3-point shot, with Sullinger hitting each of his first attempts while Buford nailed his first. Craft hit another 3-pointer to help OSU tie the game, 12-12.
OSU fell behind in a back-and-forth affair and trailed Gonzaga, 24-20, 10:12 into the game. The Bulldogs put their size to use and owned the paint, collecting four offensive rebounds to that point and outscoring OSU, 14-2.
Sacre laid a basket home as he was fouled with 7:58 to play. He converted the free-throw to make the score 27-20.
Through his first 35 games of the season, Craft averaged nine points per game. Against Gonzaga, Craft matched his average by the 3:36 mark in the first half. The nine points were only good enough keep the Buckeyes’ deficit at 32-27.
A partisan CONSOL Energy Center crowd was backing the Buckeyes, and a surge late in the half by Thomas brought those fans to life.
Thomas did all of his first-half scoring in the final 5:01 of the half, but the 12 points he deposited helped OSU claim a 37-37 tie. A lay-in by Craft in the closing seconds put the finishing touch on a 10-3 run that put the Buckeyes up, 39-37, heading into the locker room.
Both teams shot a high percentage from the field by halftime – OSU shot 62 percent on 16-of-26 from the field while Gonzaga connected on 14-of-31 attempts for 45 percent.
Craft continued his offensive surge with six points before the first media timeout in the second half. Sullinger stole an in-bound pass and heaved the ball up-court to Craft who finished at the hoop and was fouled. Craft hit the free-throw attempt to follow, putting OSU up, 46-39, with fewer than 16 minutes to play.
Sullinger was assessed his third foul with 14:43 to play, and was exchanged by Matta for junior forward Evan Ravenel. OSU’s offense was rolling with Sullinger, though.
Thomas deposited a 3-pointer just before Sullinger’s exit from the game, and Buford hit one immediately after to put OSU up, 52-42. The lead was the biggest of the game for the Buckeyes to that point, and Gonzaga coach Mark Few called a timeout as fans donning Scarlet and Gray rose to their feet.
To that point, OSU had shot 47 percent from 3-point territory, connecting on 8-of-17 attempts.
Then OSU went cold.
Gonzaga cut into the lead by the 7:24 mark of the second half, and trailed, 58-54. After moving to within four points, Sacre, who finished with eight points, came back on defense and called Bulldogs fans to make noise.
Minutes later, Gonzaga pulled to within two points and forced Matta to call a timeout with 5:48 to play. By the 3:58 mark, the game was tied.
Neutral fans in the crowd turned and began to support the mid-major program from Spokane, Wash., which posted 25 wins in the regular season and West Coast Conference Tournament. The Bulldogs also dismantled West Virginia on Thursday, 77-54, to advance to the third round.
Then OSU turned to Sullinger to ice the game.
Sullinger’s six points, plus the free-throws from Buford, Thomas and Smith, finally put the game out of reach and sent the Buckeyes through to the next round of the tournament.
Start time for OSU’s Thursday game in Boston has not been announced.