They were cool customers

Buckeyes thrive in physical game

Ohio State’s Aaron Craft (left) got whistled for the foul defending Syracuse’s Brandon Triche. Ohio State’s Aaron Craft (left) got whistled for the foul defending Syracuse’s Brandon Triche. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / March 25, 2012
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If Ohio State had any interest in beating Syracuse Saturday night and advancing to the Final Four, the cool guys would have to take the night off.

Jared Sullinger said as much after Thursday’s win over Cincinnati, describing the Buckeyes who allowed the Bearcats back into the game in the second half as temporarily slipping into cool-guy mode. For Ohio State to be at its best, Sullinger said the blue-collar guys had to be the ones who took the floor against Syracuse, and they had to remain in character throughout.

Building a double-digit lead once again in the second half, the Buckeyes nearly lost it all, but kept plugging away, kept working. With so much at stake, it wasn’t the time to be cool, at least not during the game.

It helped that the Buckeyes got their beast back. Limited to just six first-half minutes after a pair of early fouls, Sullinger came out for the second half and played all 20 minutes. The only time he sat down was during timeouts, and had to be convinced to do so.

“I knew he was going to play well in the second half,’’ Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “There was no doubt about that.’’

Sullinger’s 15 second-half points went a long way toward sending the Buckeyes to New Orleans. He finished with a game-high 19, and the 77-70 victory over the Orange in the East Regional final at TD Garden left the big man at midcourt as the buzzer sounded, arms raised, flashing a broad smile.

The lunch-pail Buckeyes are headed to the Big Easy.

Syracuse might have been the regular-season champions from the rugged Big East, but Ohio State thought they had the horses to mix it up and wanted that type of night. As the Buckeye starters were sitting on the bench before pregame introductions, assistant coach Chris Jent got right in the faces of the Buckeye five, and twice screamed: “They do not want a physical game!’’

The Buckeyes certainly did, thinking that attacking the Syracuse 2-3 matchup zone would give them their best chance on offense. It didn’t hurt that the referees called a tight game, with 49 combined fouls and 67 free throws, including 42 attempts by Ohio State.

But losing Sullinger - who picked up his second foul with 13:42 left in the first half, and Ohio State up, 13-10 - made the desired plan difficult, at least until he’d be able to return.

One of the keys to the game was Ohio State’s ability to hang with Syracuse in the first half with Sullinger out. Amir Williams (nine first-half minutes, 3 points) and Boston College transfer Evan Ravenel (five minutes, 3 points) combined to hold their own - and they were getting plenty of encouragement from Sullinger, who turned into part-coach, part-cheerleader with his warm-up top on. When the teams went to halftime tied at 29, Sullinger & Co., had to be licking their chops.

“These guys have played without me before,’’ Sullinger said. “They know what they have to do. We just kept competing on the defensive end, I think that’s where we won the basketball game. I’m just so proud of these guys.’’

It didn’t take long for the Buckeyes to establish the necessary tone in the second half. They looked inside to Sullinger immediately, and he scored 6 points in an opening 17-7 run that pushed the Buckeye lead to 46-36 with 13:45 left.

Syracuse responded with a run of its own, twice cutting the Ohio State lead to 1, at 52-51 and 55-54. But the Buckeyes kept going inside, figuring that the ball in the hands of their All-American sophomore was precisely where they wanted it to be.

Sullinger’s jumper with 5:39 left pushed the Buckeye lead to 57-54, and three Sullinger free throws extended the advantage to 5 as the clock went inside the four-minute mark.

“He was attacking the basket. He was getting position down low, and when you’re guarding a big body like Sullinger’s, it’s tough for anyone to do something,’’ said Syracuse forward Kris Joseph. “Either he’s going to get fouled or he’ll have a chance to score 2 points. He played hard. He made some tough shots.’’

Because of Sullinger’s second-half effectiveness, Syracuse tried to double him when he caught it, which left teammates open. Lenzelle Smith Jr. also had a huge second half, scoring 16 of his 18 points, and making three 3-pointers.

With a 39-26 rebounding advantage and 12 second-chance points, the Buckeyes did enough of the dirty work required to win close games in March.

From Jent’s vocal reminder about how the Ohio State coaching staff wanted the team to play until the final horn, the blue-collar Buckeyes clocked in, put in a workmanlike day, and clocked out, with a business trip to New Orleans the just reward.

Final Four? Buckeye fans think that’s pretty cool.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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