PITTSBURGH — Jared Sullinger doesn’t get mad anymore. Those days are over. The Ohio State sophomore forward knows he can’t afford to lose his temper if the Buckeyes want to reach the Final Four.
So rather than sulk after foul trouble and some solid Gonzaga defense frustrated him for 36 minutes Saturday, the quickly maturing big man relaxed, took a deep breath and hoisted the Buckeyes on his broad shoulders.
Sullinger scored 18 points, including two big baskets on soft hook shots in the final 3 minutes to lead Ohio State to a 73-66 victory and a spot in the regional semifinals for the third straight year.
“I knew that throwing my body and creating contact wasn’t going to work in this game,” he said. “So I kind of just went with a little bit of finesse and just tried to get off-the-body contact and try to go up and finish.”
And finish off the original bracket busters in the process.
DeShaun Thomas also scored 18 for the second-seeded Buckeyes (29-7), while Aaron Craft added 17 points and 10 assists. Ohio State will play Florida State or Cincinnati in Boston on Thursday.
“We didn’t shoot the ball particularly well in the second half, but we knocked the shots down. And everybody made a big shot here and there,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
It’s what the Buckeyes do. When Sullinger spent the last 9:12 of the first half on the bench with two fouls, the Buckeyes relied on Craft and Thomas to erase a seven-point deficit.
Then, with the Bulldogs surging after wiping out a 10-point Ohio State lead, the Buckeyes went back to basics.
They went back to Sullinger, though such measures hardly seemed necessary after a putback by Thomas gave the Buckeyes a 58-48 lead. The Bulldogs (26-7) responded with a 13-3 run capped by a 3-pointer from the corner by Harris that tied it at 61 with 4:05 to go.
Then Sullinger, who still thinks about last year’s loss to Kentucky in the regional semifinals, took over. He backed down Gonzaga center Robert Sacre and hit a soft little hook shot from the right block to put Ohio State back in front.
“Right down the stretch we wanted to get the ball in his hands,” Matta said. “He’s a winner. We’ll ride that down the stretch.”
Gary Bell Jr. led Gonzaga with 18 points and Harris added 16, but the Zags went cold down the stretch, coming up empty on five straight possessions after tying the game as Ohio State avoided becoming the third No. 2 seed to lose in less than 24 hours. Fellow heavyweights Duke and Missouri fell to upstarts on Friday from one-bid leagues.
Yet the Buckeyes knew the Bulldogs are hardly scrappy underdogs. They entered the game with 17 NCAA victories over the last 14 seasons, the same as the Buckeyes.
The 18th will have to wait until next year at least, though coach Mark Few was hardly apologizing after taking the Buckeyes to the limit.
“We went toe-to-toe with a really good team,” Few said. “Wouldn’t surprise me if they are cutting down the nets in New Orleans. They’re right at that level with some of those other good teams like Syracuse and Kentucky.”
It’s a glass ceiling the Bulldogs have been trying to break through since making the regional finals in 1999. Their best chance of returning to the round of 16 came on Kevin Pangos’ 3-point attempt from the right corner with 90 seconds to play.
“I thought it was good for sure,” Pangos said.
It certainly looked good. The ball went halfway down before rolling off and into the hands of Ohio State’s William Buford. Sullinger again delivered with a baby hook to push the Buckeyes’ lead to 66-61 with 57 seconds left.
The Bulldogs got no closer. By the time Bell banked in an awkward 3-pointer with 11 seconds left, it was too late.
“I think if you ask the Ohio State guys, they know we hit ‘em and went right at ‘em,” Few said.
Gonzaga pushed around West Virginia in a 23-point romp in the second round Thursday. Sullinger, who watched part of the rout from behind one of the baskets, described it as a “wake-up” call.
If it was, the Buckeyes hit the snooze button early.
Determined to lead Gonzaga to the one destination that has eluded the program, senior center Robert Sacre gave the Bulldogs an impassioned pep talk in the tunnel before taking the floor just before the opening tip, urging “everybody to hit their man.”
Gonzaga landed the first blows, dominating the paint early against the supposedly bigger, deeper Buckeyes.
The Bulldogs led 27-20 late in the first half even with Sacre in foul trouble. Reserve Sam Dower filled in capably, crashing the glass and even knocking down his third 3-pointer of the season.
If Ohio State was rattled, it didn’t show.
Thomas, coming off a career-high 31 points against Loyola, took over with Sullinger relegated to a cheerleader after picking up his second foul. The sophomore swingman ripped off 10 straight points during a 4-minute stretch as Ohio State clawed back. Craft erased all of Gonzaga’s hard work with a difficult runner just before the horn to give the Buckeyes a 39-37 lead as Ohio State fans who made the 3-hour drive from Columbus roared their approval.
Gonzaga never climbed back in front, and the Buckeyes were marching toward Boston looking just as formidable as top-seed Syracuse thanks to their suddenly easygoing star.
“He’s such a smart player,” Matta said of Sullinger. “He knows when he makes a mistake and how to correct it. Jared’s Jared.”