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Bob Ryan

Ohio State learned its lesson after February skid

What you need to know is that in the course of its 38-game schedule, The Ohio State University Men’s Basketball team has had no - as in “zero’’ - bad losses. Losing at Illinois, at the time they did so, was definitely not a bad loss.

And they never will, because if the New Orleans-bound East Regional champs should drop their semifinal game next Saturday night, it will be to North Carolina or Kansas. ’Nuff said. The Buckeyes have a consistently good basketball team, one worthy of a berth in the Final Four.

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“I give Ohio State a ton of credit,’’ said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. “They played really, really well. They’ve got a great basketball team, and they deserved to win.’’

The Buckeyes nailed down this 77-70 ticket to the Final Four by making Syracuse look like something other than Syracuse. They attacked the famed Orange 2-3 zone with intensity and intelligence, opening eyes among the sellout TD Garden crowd of 19,026 by taking a 2-0 lead on a Deshaun Thomas layup nine seconds into the game. And although Boeheim would insist that it was his team’s offense that was mostly at fault, that opening strike announced that Ohio State was going to be very difficult to handle.

But it was offense that annoyed Boeheim, whose team went 14:38 in one stretch of the first half without making a basket on something other than a dunk and went 15:52 without making a jumper.

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“I thought we lost a little offensive patience in the first half,’’ Boeheim said. “I thought we forced some shots in some situations when we should have been a little more patient. I think our offense hurt us tonight.’’

On another night, perhaps, even against another Top-10 foe, Syracuse might have fought through those first-half offensive woes and found a way to secure victory No. 35 and thus extend this extraordinary season. But the Orange came up against a team that has all the requisite ingredients of a Final Four team, except, perhaps, experience. The Buckeyes start four sophomores, but they have pretty good basketball pedigrees.

As I said, they have nothing but forgivable and entirely understandable losses on their résumé. You ready? At Kansas, at Indiana, at Illinois (then playing very well), Michigan State, at Michigan, Wisconsin, and Michigan State again in the Big Ten tournament.

But they were prideful enough to consider losing three out of five in February as cause for alarm. So aggravated was coach Thad Matta that he even tossed the team out of practice one day. This, of course, is a tale that will now be told and retold, and stand back if the Buckeyes go on to win the national championship. You know everyone will cite the loss to Wisconsin and the day he chucked them out of practice as the great teaching moments coaches love to rhapsodize about when they’re sitting in their rockers years down the road.

“I think that loss opened their eyes and said, ‘Hey, we’re not as good as maybe we think we are,’ ’’ said Matta, “and I think that allowed us as a staff to say we have a better gear. We can play better basketball. We can play more together. As hard as that loss was to take, having a lead down the stretch, we missed some free throws, maybe it got us pointed in the right direction.’’

Speaking of free throws, the Buckeyes were 31 of 42 from the line in this one, including 13 of 14 in the final minute. Two Syracuse players fouled out, while three others had four fouls. But the foul problems went both ways. Regional Outstanding Player Jared Sullinger missed the final 13-plus minutes of the first half after picking up two fouls (the second one very suspicious) and floor leader Aaron Craft fouled out in the final minute.

Officiating can often tarnish any potentially good basketball game, and this one offered us a pretty good Exhibit A. Whoever assigned this particular crew to such an important game should be placed on immediate administrative leave.

As annoying as the officiating was, at least it did not determine the outcome. Ohio State won because the Buckeyes played better basketball. They beat the ’Cuse on the boards (39-26) and they had the people making the big plays when they needed them, most notably the 6-foot-9-inch, 250-pound Sullinger, with 15 of his game-high 19 in the second half, and 6-4 sophomore Lenzelle Smith Jr., who came back from a first-half blow to the head requiring four stitches to score 16 of his 18 after intermission.

Syracuse did not win a school-record 34 games by being passive. Down 10 (46-36) with 13:45 remaining, the Orange came back to within 52-51 and 55-54. But the burly Sullinger - “The best low post player in the country,’’ said Boeheim - answered that second incursion with a classy, banked jump hook, launching a little personal spurt during which he was twice able to get himself to the line.

“This was going to be an even game, no matter what,’’ said Boeheim, “and we just got it to 1, and we really just couldn’t make a play.’’

Nope, the necessary plays were made by the Buckeyes, the last Big Ten team standing. So now they have a 50-50 chance of pushing spring football practice to an inside page. For one day, anyway.

Sooner or later, Sullinger is heading to the NBA, and it’s good to know he’s already got the pro rap down.

“We know, hopefully, it’s not our last game,’’ he said, “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.’’

Pleasure, business, it doesn’t matter. It’s very well-deserved.

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