BOSTON - Jared Sullinger picked up two early fouls and was sent to the bench for most of the first half, but resilient No. 2 seed Ohio State held down the fort in his absence and thrived when their leader returned in the second half as they topped No. 1 seed Syracuse, 77-70, in the Elite Eight round of the East Regionals on Saturday evening at TD Garden.
"We beat a tremendous team tonight," said Ohio State head coach Thad Matta. "It's funny, I thought our guys, we got off to a good start. Jared got in a little bit of foul trouble. Everybody kind of pulled together, and it's something we've been preaching with this basketball team, and came down the second half making big plays."
The Buckeyes will face the winner of No. 1 seeded North Carolina Tar Heels and the No. 2 seeded Kansas Jayhawks in one half of the Final Four on March 31 inside the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. The winner will advance to the national championship game.
"It feels great," said Buckeyes senior guard William Buford. "Nobody on this team has ever made it this far. In past years I got [stuck] on the Sweet 16. To make it this far is kind of a relief to know that hard work pays off. We've all been working hard throughout the summer and throughout the season, and to make it to the Final Four is just great for us."
Sullinger led all scorers with 19 points and also had seven rebounds while Lenzelle Smith Jr. scored 18. Deshaun Thomas added 14 points and nine boards and Buford rebounded from a poor game against Cincinnati to score 13 and grab nine rebonds. The Buckeyes shot 41 percent and out-rebounded the Orange 41-29 in the victory.
Ohio State opened the first half on a 9-2 run, but a pair of threes from Scoop Jardine put the Orange right back in the mix. Sullinger, who scored four of Ohio State's first nine points, picked up his second foul at 13:42 of the first period and was replaced by Boston College Eagles transfer Evan Ravenel, who provided quality minutes.
Given an opportunity to make a run with Sullinger on the bench (he would sit for the rest of the half), Syracuse was unable to go ahead by more than two points down the stretch, but did do enough to tie the score after 20 minutes. Neither team was effective from the field, with Ohio State shooting 34.5 percent and Syracuse shooting 35.7 percent.
"I didn't know if coach Matta was going to sit me," Sullinger said regarding his two early fouls. "But these guys have played without me before so they know what they have to do. We just kept competing on the defensive end. I think that's what won the basketball game. And also in the first half that's what got the game so knotted up. It's not the first time they've played without me, so I'm just proud of these guys."
"Yeah, great luxury," Matta said about sitting Sullinger for most of the half. "I think -- we were talking, what does it get to before we put him back in, and those guys fought and did a tremendous job of holding the status quo as we went into halftime. Basically said, no blood, zero, zero, we've got 20 more minutes to do it in, and I felt good that he was getting rest. I knew he was going to play well in the second half. There was no doubt about that."
The Buckeyes opened up the second half with a 12-4 run, in which Buford scored five. With Sullinger back in the lineup and producing, Ohio State was able to open up a 10-point lead (46-36 at 13:47) -- its largest of the game. Brandon Triche's first points were big, as a three with 12:41 to play cut the Syracuse deficit to four, 46-42, and he would make two free throws minutes later to make it a three point game, 47-44, with 12:09 to go. A 6-5 run by the Orange brought them within one point, 52-51, with under eight minutes left, but a big three from Smith gave the Buckeyes some much-needed breathing room at 55-51.
"I mean, he did a lot for us, whether it was offensively or defensively," Aaron Craft said of Smith. "He stepped up and made a couple big shots for us, and on the other end, as well, he did a good job of keeping their great guards in front of him and trying to do his best."
Sullinger scored five in a row (a jumper and two free throws) and Smith hit a jumper, giving Ohio State a seven-point edge at 3:15. Triche's jumper and free throw again made it a four-point Orange deficit, 62-58, with 2:17 left. But Thomas and Sullinger put the icing on the cake, scoring the next four to make it an eight-point lead, and that essentially did it.
Triche led the Orange with 15 points on 3-of-7 shooting from deep and Jardine added 14 points and six assists. Kris Joseph was the only other Syracuse player to reach double-digit scoring with 10 points while Dion Waiters scored nine and C.J. Fair added eight points.
"You know, I thought we fought as hard as we have all year, just like we do every game," said Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim. "I thought our defense was good. I thought that -- I just thought we lost a little offensive patience in the first half. I thought we forced some shots in some situations when we should have been a little more patient. I think our offense really just hurt us tonight. Our offense has been really good the last two games. I just thought tonight we just weren't as patient as we've been on the offensive end of the court."