Achieving that aim became infinitely more difficult with the Buckeyes’ best big man on the bench for 14 of the opening 20 minutes.
But after watching his team hang tough without him, Jared Sullinger made up for lost time in the second half. With dominant post play, Ohio State’s sophomore forward led the way as the Buckeyes toppled the top-seeded Orange 77-70 to reach the Final Four.
Ohio State will face the winner of Sunday’s Midwest Region final between North Carolina and Kansas in the Final Four.
The whistles were out in Boston, where numerous touch-fouls mounted and the two teams combined for 48 personal fouls. As a result, several Buckeyes and Orange found themselves on the bench. Ohio State Coach Thad Matta’s decision to sit Sullinger when he picked up his second foul paid dividends in the second half as Sullinger came out with a renewed intensity and focus. He finished with 19 points — 15 coming after halftime — and seven rebounds and fellow forward Deshaun Thomas added 14 points and nine boards as the Buckeyes found holes in the interior of Syracuse’s zone.
Ohio State went into the half with the score tied — a considerable feat without Sullinger on the floor.
The Buckeyes led 41-33 nearly five minutes into the second half, and after an Orange three-pointer cut the deficit to five, they went right back to Sullinger, who backed his man down for an easy layup. On their ensuing possession, Sullinger banked in a short jumper to give Ohio State its biggest lead of the night.
But each time Syracuse caught up, Sullinger came up with a big bucket or drew a foul to give his team another cushion. And his activity took its toll on the Orange’s front line as forwards Rakeem Christmas and James Southerland and guard Dion Waiters all had four fouls with 12 minutes remaining in the game.
Sophomore Lenzelle Smith, Jr. finished with 18 points and hit all three of his three-pointers in the second half to complement Sullinger’s work on the interior.
Aaron Craft’s relentless defense frustrated Orange point guard Scoop Jardine, who struggled to get into the paint on dribble-drives. Both teams finished with 12 turnovers, but five of Syracuse’s came in the final five minutes.
Brandon Triche did his best to keep Syracuse within striking distance, hitting a pair of three-pointers to pull the Orange within one point with just under seven minutes remaining. He scored 15 of his team’s final 28 points.
But the Buckeyes hit 13 of 14 free throws in the final 68 seconds to seal it and send them back to the Final Four for the first time since 2007.
Box score: Ohio State 77, Syracuse 70
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