Suddenly finding themselves down by four with 12 minutes to play, Ohio State coaches, players and fans couldn’t help but think: “Not again. We can’t lose three straight years in the Sweet 16.”
After losing in both 2010 and 2011 in this round, each time to a lower-seeded team, the thought of it happening again in 2012 had to make Buckeye nation sick.
Ohio State went into halftime with a double-digit lead on sixth-seeded Cincinnati. Less than five minutes into the second half, that entire lead was gone.
Cincinnati came out with its hair on fire to start the second half, hitting seven of its first eight shots while forcing three Ohio State turnovers which led to some of those high-percentage baskets. The Bearcats tied the game at 41 on Jaquon Parker’s jumper.
A minute later, Ohio State fell behind after Cashmere Wright drilled a three for Cincinnati. Two minutes later, Wright buried another three to put the Bearcats up by four.
In just under eight minutes, Ohio State managed to allow 24 points, just one less than it allowed the entire first half. Did Cincinnati speed the game up and start getting better shots? Sure. Did Ohio State relax a bit on both ends of the floor? No doubt about it. A double-digit lead in a round as competitive as the Sweet 16 perhaps makes a team feel a bit too good about itself.
Don’t forget Ohio State is still a pretty young team, and confidence—and a corresponding lapse in intensity—can sometimes come a bit too easy. While most of the Buckeyes’ key players were on the team a year ago that lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, only William Buford remains from the team which lost to Tennessee in 2010.
Speaking of Buford, he picked a good time to hit his only shot of the game. His three brought Ohio State back within one, at 49-48. Although Yancy Gates’ three-point play took the deficit back to four, Buford’s three seemed to spark the Buckeyes on the offensive end.
Including Buford’s three, Ohio State scored on eight of 10 possessions, highlighted by back-to-back threes by Lenzelle Smith and Aaron Craft. Jared Sullinger capped off the offensive burst with a jumper, and all of a sudden the Buckeyes were up by 12, at 65-53.
In just six minutes, starting with the senior Buford’s three, Ohio State completely reversed the tide of the game. An explosive 20-4 run came just a few minutes after allowing a 21-6 Cincinnati run which put the Buckeyes behind.
In those six minutes midway through the second half, Ohio State overcame its recent and present Sweet 16 demons. The Buckeyes entered the game knowing it had lost twice in a row in this round. They then had to deal with a second-half run that seemed to have the potential to make it three straight Sweet 16 losses.
In order to avoid another premature, crushing tourney loss as a top-seed, Ohio State used its defense to create quality scoring opportunities. The past two years, last year in particular, the Buckeyes settled all too often for long-range jump shots.
Buford in particular knew this all too well. He went just 2-for-16 from the field last year in the loss to Kentucky. Despite another subpar offensive game from him this time around (he was just 1-of-8 for four points), Ohio State had plenty of other good looks to score, particularly around the rim. Sullinger, DeShaun Thomas and Lenzelle Smith took advantage of these looks, which were available due to both transition and better ball movement.
All this amounted to Ohio State shaking off its recent Sweet 16 struggles and taking a well-deserved spot in the East Regional Final against the No. 1 seed Syracuse.
Maybe the fact they weren’t playing an SEC team this year, or the fact they played Thursday and not Friday, also helped. Either way, Ohio State has a pretty big monkey off its back in this NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes are now in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2007, when they went all the way to the NCAA title game behind Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr.
Will getting back to this point now give Ohio State the confidence to take down Syracuse and get back to the Final Four? We’ll find out Saturday.
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