Near the end of Saturday night’s East Regional final, when Jim Boeheim had four players with four fouls and the game seemed constantly interrupted by referees’ whistles, all the Syracuse coach could do was chuckle. He had, after all, already earned his first technical foul of the season, and nothing could seem to stop the whistles.
It was a game dominated by the men in stripes as the teams tipped off at TD Garden with a spot in the Final Four on the line. The whistles forced stars to the bench as depth became an issue for both squads. It affected the flow of play, the crowd’s reaction, and the coaches’ blood pressure. The teams were called for 49 fouls combined.
In the end, it was second-seeded Ohio State’s defense and balanced scoring overcoming the Orange, 77-70, to earn a trip to New Orleans. The Buckeyes, who spread the scoring among Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas, Lenzelle Smith Jr., and William Buford, knocked off the top seed in the East.
“I appreciated everyone who doubted this basketball team, said we were the underdogs, we weren’t good enough, mentally strong enough, physically strong enough, mentally immature. We heard it all,’’ said Sullinger. “I want to thank y’all because through all the adversity, we constantly pushed through that. I’m so proud of these guys. We came from nothing, according to y’all, to something now.’’
They certainly came from disappointment. Ohio State had underachieved in the NCAA Tournament the last two years, losing in the Sweet 16 as a No. 2 seed in 2010 and a No. 1 seed in 2011. This time, again as a No. 2, there has been no disappointment. Only celebration. Only a “business trip’’ to New Orleans, as Sullinger called it.
“I thought it was a high-level basketball game,’’ Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “The way it’s supposed to be in the regional finals.’’
Except for that officiating.
“We’re not going to blame it on the refs,’’ said Syracuse’s Scoop Jardine, his eyes red. “I think we had a chance to win the game no matter what, with the refs or without them giving us any calls.’’
And Syracuse did have a chance in the final minutes.
“Our defense wasn’t the problem,’’ Boeheim said. “Our offense was the problem. And I guess we fouled them too many times.’’
The Buckeyes (31-7) started to separate themselves as the second half started, with Syracuse forward Rakeem Christmas relegated to the bench with four fouls and Sullinger back on the floor after sitting for a spell with foul trouble in the first half.
The Buckeyes opened a double-digit lead just more than six minutes into the second half when Smith nailed a free throw. Up to that point, it had been a tightly-played, physical battle dominated by the referees.
But it wouldn’t be quite that easy for Ohio State as Syracuse (34-3) narrowed the margin to 2 points with 8:45 to go. The Orange crept as close as 1 point twice, the game a close and entertaining contest despite all the whistles.
“All year we’ve been able to make a play in that situation,’’ Boeheim said, “and we just didn’t.’’
Sullinger was tremendous, leading the Buckeyes with 19 points and seven rebounds despite sitting for 14 minutes of the first half. With Fab Melo out for Syracuse, it was clear Ohio State would try to control the paint, something helped immensely by Sullinger’s presence.
“He played hard,’’ Syracuse’s Kris Joseph said. “He was attacking the basket. He was getting position down low, and when you’re guarding a big body like Sullinger’s, it was tough for anyone to do something. Either he’s going to get fouled or he’ll have a chance to score 2 points. Our bigs did as good a job as they could have against him.’’
Smith, too, was a major factor, scoring 16 of his 18 points in the second half.
So were all those fouls, with Ohio State making 31 of 42 from the line and Syracuse hitting 20 of 25. The excessive calls resulted in extra court time for players that might not have been expected to see significant minutes in an Elite Eight game. For Ohio State, that meant BC transfer Evan Ravenel and freshman Amir Williams. For Syracuse, a team with greater depth, that meant extra time for center Baye Keita.
In the second half, both teams hit the bonus with 13 minutes left. And Boeheim was left to choose among three players who had each been called for four fouls – Christmas, forward James Southerland, and guard Dion Waiters. Ohio State guard Aaron Craft had picked up three.
Craft fouled out in the final minute as Syracuse tried to stave off the end of a season that has been dominated by strange stories and off-court issues. But, ultimately, the Buckeyes managed to come out on top.
“I give Ohio State a ton of credit,’’ Boeheim said. “They played really, really well. They’ve got a great basketball team, and they deserved to win.’’