BOSTON - To all the doubters of the Ohio State Buckeyes, Jared Sullinger says thank you. After all, it was your constant criticism of him and the team that drove them to where they are today: heading to the Final Four and two wins away from a national championship.
"I appreciated everyone that doubted this basketball team, said we was the underdogs, we wasn't good enough, mentally strong enough, mentally immature, we heard it all," Sullinger said after a 77-70 win over No. 1 seed Syracuse in the Elite Eight on Saturday night at TD Garden. "When we was going through that slump in February, everybody was saying this basketball team was kind of on a downhill. We heard negative comments. I want to thank y'all because through all the adversity, we constantly pushed through that. I'm so proud of these guys. It's just‑‑ I mean, we came from nothing, according to y'all, to something now."
Sullinger played a major role in the Buckeyes' win, despite playing limited minutes in the first half due to foul trouble. A strong showing in the second half gave Sullinger a game-high 19 points and seven rebounds, which helped lead Ohio State to a 48-point second half after the two teams were tied at 29 entering the intermission.
After scoring four of the Buckeyes' first nine points, Sullinger picked up his second foul at 13:42 of the opening half and was subbed out for former Boston College Eagles reserve Evan Ravenel. Sullinger would not play for the rest of the half, and while the Buckeyes gave up their early lead, no long term damage was done.
"Yeah, great luxury," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said about sitting Sullinger. "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."
As predicted, Sullinger played well in the second half, scoring 15 points while grabbing four boards in 20 minutes. The Buckeyes built a 10-point lead, 46-36, by the 13:47 mark of the period, with six points from Sullinger sparking the run. While the Orange would crawl within one point (55-54 at 6:52) after a Brandon Triche trey, Sullinger would score eight of his team's final 20 points to bring Syracuse's season to a grinding halt.
"He played hard," said Orange forward Kris Joseph (10 points) about Sullinger. "He was attacking the basket. He was getting positioned down low, and when you were guarding a big body like Sullinger's it was tough for anyone to do something. Either he's going to get fouled or he'll have a chance to score two points. Our bigs did as good a job as they could have against him. He made some tough shots, and he's a great player."
Sullinger's impact was by far the most important, but the performances of reserves like Ravenel and Amir Williams, among others, in Sully's absence really solidified the win for Ohio State. Lenzelle Smith Jr., who finished with 18 points, also played a major role on both sides of the ball and contributed to the win.
"I mean, Lenzelle had big games before, when we played Indiana and then when we played Michigan," Sullinger said. "Lenzelle, the bigger the game I think the better he plays. With Amir, Amir always had talent. It's just unfortunately he's playing behind me and Evan (Ravenel) at the time, so watch out for him next year. But those guys, they played big when it came to a big‑time game, and I thought that was tremendous for this basketball team."
Syracuse had its moments, too. The Orange led by two in the first half and nearly bridged the gap in the second period, which is an impressive feat considering the absence of star center Fab Melo, who was academically ineligible for the entire NCAA Tournament. Considering the circumstances, Syracuse's success in the tournament was impressive.
"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 bit more patient. I think our offense 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."
Ohio State will continue to celebrate its well-deserved Elite Eight victory for a few more days before turning its attention to its Final Four matchup, which takes place on March 31 against either North Carolina or Kansas in New Orleans. When exactly will Matta and company stop celebrating? Soon, but not before they have enjoyed themselves first.
"Well, I think New Orleans is a celebration type town, so we're just going to keep rolling right in there," Matta said. "This team, as a coach, I've been a head coach now for 12 years, and the one thing I've always tried to do was enjoy the special moments. We're going to enjoy‑‑ we don't even know who we're playing yet. I think taking the time to celebrate is something that they deserve. I would say when we get back in on Monday, it'll be time to go to work, and we've got a week to prepare for either North Carolina or Kansas and get ready to go."
Once the celebration is over, Sullinger knows that the Buckeyes have to buckle down.
Said Sullinger, "We know hopefully it's not our last game, so we're just trying to play hard and play smart, and not going down to New Orleans for a vacation, it's a business trip. "