BOSTON – Jared Sullinger came back to college for this. He felt his team had this kind of potential, even if many others didn’t. In the end, he proves to be right, as his young Ohio State team is headed to the Final Four, and not on the backs of four players who carried them for a lot of the season.
Ohio State’s 77-70 victory had a little irony in that they won the game a little like the way their opponents often beat teams this season. Ohio State didn’t use a zone defense like Syracuse, but whereas the Orange won a lot of games with their depth, Ohio State did so on Saturday to a different degree. The man of the hour, if there truly is one, was not Sullinger, and it wasn’t surging Deshaun Thomas, feisty point guard Aaron Craft or steady senior William Buford.
Sullinger ran down a list of reasons given as to why this team couldn’t advance this far. One noteworthy one was absent.
“I appreciated everyone that doubted this basketball team, said we was the underdogs, we wasn’t good enough, mentally strong enough, not physically strong enough, mentally immature, we heard it all,” said the sophomore forward, who was having fun with the media in his typical big kid-like fashion. “I want to thank y’all, y’all helped us out tremendously.”
One ongoing storyline was that the Buckeyes were heavily dependent on four players. The stats certainly back it up, although they don’t do justice to the talent this team has. They account for almost 75 percent of the team’s scoring, over 59 percent of the team’s rebounds and over 64 percent of the team’s assists. Part of it is also being a young group, as this team has just two upperclassmen. But one of the Buckeyes who made the All-East Region team was not one of those four, Lenzelle Smith, Jr. He was that fifth man they needed, although he wasn’t alone on the night.
Smith had 18 points on the night, right behind Sullinger’s 19 for game-high honors. 16 of those points came in the second half, when he went 4-6 from the field, and he hit several shots at key junctures as well. When Syracuse had come within 52-51 thanks to five straight points, Smith hit a three-pointer to push the lead back up to four. Later, he capped off a 5-0 run with a jumper that put the Buckeyes up by seven with 3:15 left.
Not only did he score, but he also played through a cut above his eye that required three stitches in the first half, and that was behind a couple of comments in the locker room after the game about how important his play was.
“I’m gonna punch him in his other eye for the next game, so he can play just how he played today,” said Buford, who added 13 points and nine rebounds. “He came in and played tremendous today, knocking down shots and playing aggressively today.”
Added Thomas, who had 14 points and tied Buford for team honors with nine boards: “I told him he should go blind from now on. It was something special to see him knocking down shots like that.”
Smith had scored in double digits in just seven games before Saturday night, although he had proven himself capable before. In January, he scored 28 against Indiana, and just two nights earlier, he scored 15 in the win over Cincinnati. He scored in double figures in both games in Boston.
There were others who joined Smith in helping the stars. When Sullinger sat with early foul trouble, playing just six minutes in the first half, the combination of Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel, the latter of whom started his college career just down the road at Boston College, managed to hold down the fort. They were hardly world-beaters, but they did enough to keep Ohio State in good shape, and they went into the half tied at 29.
“He’s not the only big man that we have,” Buford said, referring to Sullinger. “Amir came in and did a great job, he was blocking shots and getting rebounds, going up strong.”
Ohio State won the first few minutes of the second half that coaches talk about all the time, and they did so decisively. Not only that, but foul trouble was clearly mounting for Syracuse, as the Orange had three players (Christmas, Waiters and Southerland) with four fouls before the under-12 media timeout. Later, when the Orange had to start fouling, that caught up to them, and they couldn’t complete a late rally. Waiters, arguably their best offensive player, fouled out.
Sullinger was quick to give credit to the entire team, and not just in the way many often do. Everyone saw what Smith did in the box score, and the way Williams and Ravenel held down the fort was noticeable as well. But that wasn’t all.
“We couldn’t have won this game without everybody,” said the sophomore forward. “Those guys come in every day, regardless of playing or not, they push through in practice, they compete in practice, they try to send a statement to the starting five. They elevate our game as well. Those guys, even though you’re not interviewing them, those guys are MVPs of this basketball team.”
There’s a lot of talent behind the starters and key reserves. One of them, freshman point guard Shannon Scott, was a McDonald’s All-American in high school. Sullinger was quick to note how talented Williams is, and Sam Thompson had some good moments in Saturday’s game.
Sullinger knew what he was getting himself into when he came back to college instead of being a potential lottery pick last June. With a little help from his friends, he and the Buckeyes are headed to the Final Four.