By Colleen Kane, Chicago Tribune –
BOSTON — Jared Sullinger backpedaled down the court at TD Garden, smiling and soaking in the crowd’s reaction after his shot over a double team bounced around the rim and in for a nine-point Ohio State lead with 14 minutes, 5 seconds to go in the second half.
His teammates had stayed even with Syracuse as he sat on the bench for nearly 14 minutes of the first half of the NCAA East Region final Saturday night. He was more than ready to push the Buckeyes ahead and on to the Final Four in New Orleans.
Sullinger scored 15 of his 19 points in the second half and second-seeded Ohio State escaped the top-seeded Orange’s furious final-minute charge to pull off a 77-70 Elite Eight victory.
“It felt good, but I had to handle my business,” said Sullinger, who added seven rebounds. “I knew this team was going to look for me to score. It kind of helped us out because at the end of the game they started sucking in on me and made our guards knock down the open shots.”
The 6-foot-9 sophomore embraced teammate Lenzelle Smith Jr. in the middle of the court with 6.5 seconds left to celebrate the Buckeyes’ spot in Saturday’s Final Four against the winner of Sunday’s Midwest Region final pitting North Carolina against Kansas.
Smith displayed his own second-half heroics after suffering a gash above his right eye that required four stitches in the first. He scored 16 of his 18 points in the second half, including four free throws in the final 44 seconds. He also made three 3-pointers and a key floater in the lane in the final 20 minutes.
“I couldn’t really see out of my right eye,” Smith said. “I made it through it with toughness. … The game slowed down for me in the second half. I was able to catch my wind and stop thinking about the headache as much. I knew I needed to do some big things for us to win this game.”
Syracuse guard Dion Waiters’ three-point play cut Ohio State’s lead to 70-67 with 36.8 seconds to play, but the Buckeyes made 7 of 8 free throws down the stretch to preserve their triumph. Syracuse was called for 29 fouls in the game, and Ohio State (31-7) made 31 of 42 free throws.
Junior guard Brandon Triche led Syracuse (34-3) with 15 points, but he missed two shots in the final 28 seconds.
Sullinger picked up his second foul with 13:42 left in the first half and went to the bench with four points and three rebounds.
Ohio State junior forward Evan Ravenel (three points) and freshman center Amir Williams (three points, four rebounds, two blocks) filled in for Sullinger and helped forge a 29-29 halftime tie.
“We lost a little offensive patience in the first half,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We forced some shots in some situations when we should have been more patient. Our offense hurt us.
“We got Sullinger in foul trouble early, and we didn’t take advantage of it. We knew when he came back in he was going to be difficult, and he was.”
Two Syracuse senior starters closed out their careers with the loss. Guard Scoop Jardine had 14 points and six assists and forward Kris Joseph added 10 points and three steals. Joseph had to take several moments to choke back tears.
“It’s real tough knowing my career is over and that I won’t play with these guys again,” Joseph said.