BOSTON — Dean Smith was a man of many sayings during his remarkable coaching career at North Carolina. One of them was this: “You can always win one big game without a key player.”
Syracuse came into the NCAA tournament hoping to somehow win six big games without a key player. It almost didn’t get through one game without center Fab Melo, who was the Big East’s defensive player of the year but not, apparently, the student of the year because he was declared ineligible for the second time this season just before the tournament began.
The Orange did survive that first-round scare though, beating UNC Asheville. Then they won another key game and another. That made three big wins without a key player. Saturday night, though, Syracuse’s magic ran out at TD Garden.
Maybe it was Ohio State’s strength inside. Maybe it was the Buckeyes’ persistence on defense. Or maybe it was the strange officiating, which turned the game into a series of stops and starts that made it very difficult for either team to get much flow or momentum.
Whatever it was didn’t really matter to the Buckeyes, who walked away with a 77-70 victory in the East Region final and will move on to the Final Four in New Orleans while the Orange goes home to ponder what might have been at the end of one of the most up-and-down seasons any basketball team has ever experienced.
“We got it to one and needed to make some plays at the end and we didn’t,” Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said, clearly upset by what he had just witnessed. “In the last minute we needed one more shot when we had it to four and couldn’t get it.”
The person who did get it when it mattered most was Ohio State’s Lenzelle Smith, who hit a fallaway three-pointer with the shot clock at about two seconds when Syracuse had closed what had been a 10-point gap to 52-51. Smith then hit a remarkable floating runner that appeared likely to bring rain before it fell through the basket to give Ohio State a 62-55 lead with 3 minutes 12 seconds to play. From there, the Buckeyes hung on by hitting 13 of 14 free throws.
In all, there were 67 free throws attempted in the game — that’s not a typo: 67. The officials called 49 fouls, almost double the 25 that were called in the spectacular Syracuse-Wisconsin game two nights earlier.
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State’s best player, went to the bench with 13:42 left in the first half when he picked up his second foul when he was backing up to avoid contact. A few minutes later, Boeheim was hit with his first technical foul of the season by referee Tom O’Neill.
That call came as Brandon Triche drove to the basket with the score tied at 23 and appeared to travel. O’Neill didn’t call the walk but did call a charge. Boeheim leaped off the bench and gave his signature “you’ve got to be kidding” gesture, bringing his hands from over his head to below his waist with his palms down.
“He was out of the [coaches’] box and he gave me the [gesture] and I said, ‘Enough,’ ” O’Neil said.
Boeheim wouldn’t comment on the officiating when specifically asked about it, but in summing up the game, he said: “The problem wasn’t our defense, it was our offense. And I guess we fouled too much.”
The officials didn’t decide who won this game, but they did take all the flow out of it. After 27 minutes they had called 30 fouls. Clearly, they decided early to make certain the game wasn’t too physical. They did that. It is hard for a game to be physical when free throws are being shot on almost every possession.
All of that said, Ohio State’s performance should not be diminished just because the game wasn’t aesthetically pleasing to watch. Sullinger came back after sitting out the rest of the first half to play superbly in the low post in the second half, finishing with 19 points and seven rebounds. Smith made clutch plays all night and point guard Aaron Craft made life miserable for Syracuse point guard Scoop Jardine for much of the evening.
The trip to the Final Four will be the second for Ohio State Coach Thad Matta, who reached the national championship game in 2007 when the ill-fated Greg Oden was his center. Oden left after his freshman season and became the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. Five injury-riddled seasons later, he was placed on waivers by the Portland Trail Blazers.
Sullinger’s freshman season ended a year ago in the round of 16. Maybe that was why he came back, or maybe the object lesson of Oden caused him to think twice before making the jump. Regardless of what it was, his return is the reason Ohio State has now won 31 games and will be playing on the season’s final weekend.
The shame in this game and this night is the sad ending for Syracuse. Perhaps the only thing more difficult to deal with than losing in the Elite Eight is losing in the national championship game. The Final Four has become such a Holy Grail for college basketball teams that those who fall one step short feel the pain of that defeat for years.
That will be especially true for this Syracuse team. It dealt with the scandal that forced out longtime assistant coach Bernie Fine in November; it dealt with Melo’s eligibility problems; it dealt with the controversy surrounding the positive drug tests from several years ago that were never acted upon. Boeheim and his players adopted an us-against-the-world approach and it worked remarkably well — until Saturday night.
“I want to give all the credit to Ohio State for beating us,” said Jardine, who was on the bench for the final four minutes of his college career. “I don’t want to say anything about the referees. Ohio State’s a great team. They deserve the credit.”
That’s exactly right. The Buckeyes were able to hang in without Sullinger to get to halftime tied at 29. Looking back, Boeheim wondered if that wasn’t where his team lost the game. “We just needed to be in better position than we were at halftime,” he said. “Ohio State played very good defense, but we missed some chances. Too many chances.”
No doubt Boeheim and his players will see those missed chances when they are staring at the ceiling late at night for a long time to come. There was no shame in this loss for Syracuse and there should be, as Jardine said, great credit given to the winners.
The shame is that two very good basketball teams spent a large chunk of the evening walking to the free throw line. The best team won the game. But Syracuse wasn’t the only team on the court Saturday that should walk away from this night with regrets about the way it performed.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein. For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.