The Ohio State Buckeyes came to Boston the favorites and left as winners of the NCAA Tournament's East regional after a 77-70 win over Syracuse Saturday night at TD Garden.
Playing what was essentially a road game in front of a largely pro-Syracuse crowd, the Buckeyes brought down the Orange with simplicity, stringing together enough consecutive possessions of sound execution on both ends of the floor to preserve the win.
If it sounds boring, it depends on your perspective. It was a game that featured a close score throughout and questionable calls on both ends. But the Buckeyes never wavered on defense, even when the Orange threatened to make it their game on several big shots from the perimeter.
Ohio State started the game out well, taking a 9-2 lead with a balanced attack against the Syracuse zone. But nothing came easy in a game that featured two elite defenses and was highlighted by some questionable officiating. Buckeyes sophomore All-American Jared Sullinger played just six minutes in the first half after picking up his second foul at the 13:42 mark of the first half. Without Sullinger, little-used forward Amir Williams played nine minutes for the Buckeyes, grabbing four rebounds and keeping the Buckeyes in the game despite the loss of their best player.
Both teams shot poorly in the first half, combining to make just 20 of 57 field goals. Ohio State's shooting (35 percent) was more egregious than Syracuse's (36 percent), and the Buckeyes made just 1 of 7 3-pointers. Scoop Jardine led all scorers in the first half with just seven points.
The teams came out of the break tied, but Ohio State took a 38-33 lead on a 3-pointer by Lenzelle Smith Jr. with 17:32 left. It was a testament to how one made shot can seem so big when you haven't been making them.
The Buckeyes started making them as the second half wore on, and they did so by finding creative ways to get Sullinger the ball. On a the second of two consecutive buckets for Sullinger, the Buckeyes moved the ball to the wing to allow an entry pass against the zone. The ball movement was part of a 16-7 run to start the second half that gave the Buckeyes a nine-point lead.
But the Orange refused to go away and began to get hot. In another example of made baskets trumping all, a 3-pointer by Brandon Triche got the lead down to four points with 12:42 remaining. It was down to one point with 7:43 remaining, but once again the Buckeyes went to Sullinger, who scored 15 of his 19 points in the second half. When Syracuse overloaded to Sullinger's side, Lenzelle Smith Jr. simply drove to the other side and hit a floater. When that wasn't there, second-leading scorer DeShaun Thomas found his way to the bucket for two more. And Ohio State finally started to make its free throws.
Sullinger led all scorers with 19 points, while Smith Jr. chipped in 18 points for the Buckeyes. Triche had 15 points for Syracuse. Ohio State will play the winner of North Carolina and Kansas in one of the national semifinals in New Orleans next weekend.