Throughout the 2011-2012 season, there have been moments when the Buckeyes suddenly go ice cold from the field. That happened again on Thursday night for an 8-minute stretch in the second half. Cincinnati rallied from an early deficit and appeared to take over the game while Ohio State couldn’t find its rhythm at either end of the floor. In those minutes, it felt OSU’s charge to a Final Four berth was about to meet its end in the Sweet Sixteen; an all too familiar and disappointing finish given how last year turned out.
For 8 minutes the Bucks’ offense stalled. For 8 minutes, the defense was at the mercy of the surging Bearcats. But for the other 32? The Buckeyes looked unstoppable.
This is what is maddening about this year’s team. At their best, these players combine inside and outside shooting with smothering defense and crisp passing– a true array of weapons. But consistency has been hard to come by. Against Cincinnati, Ohio State dominated early and dominated late, enduring the rally in between and willing itself into the Elite Eight. As it turned out, the inconsistent play didn’t hurt. But with 1-seed Syracuse looming as the next matchup, the Buckeyes need to figure out how to avoid damaging dry spells.
With the exception of the opening minutes of the second half, Thursday’s was as good a game as Ohio State has played all season. Deshaun Thomas was unconscious in the first half, draining 20 points before the break and helping OSU to a 12-point halftime cushion. Jared Sullinger was a force inside, finishing with a 23-point, 11-rebound double-double. Lenzelle Smith, Jr. added 15, going 3 of 4 from beyond the arc. And despite an 0 for 5 start, Aaron Craft tallied 11 points to go along with 5 assists and 6 steals.
If Thomas was the hero of the first half, the second half– and crunch time– belonged to Craft. After Cincinnati roared back from a dozen down to regain the lead, something seemed to change in the point guard. His normally high energy levels skyrocketed, fed by Sullinger’s ire and fire. While the big man implored his teammates to regroup, Craft ratcheted up his defense. Over a 6-minute span his harassment led to five UC turnovers versus just a single point, and Ohio State’s 52-48 deficit became a 65-53 advantage.
With the lead back to 12, the Buckeyes never looked back.
For a guy who didn’t score his first point until the ten-minute mark of the second half, Craft had a profound impact on the game.
Just as in the 2011 Tournament, William Buford had a Sweet Sixteen to forget, mustering a mere 4 points on 1 of 8 shooting. The bench managed just 2 points. Despite the eventual 81-66 win and its comfortable margin of victory, there remains plenty of room for improvement. Ohio State shot 48% from the floor and nailed 8 of 17 3-point attempts, but let Cincy hit 46% from the floor. Until Craft locked down the Bearcat offense, UC was shooting over 50%. Cashmere Wright led Cincinnati with 18 points. Sean Kilpatrick added 15 and Jaquon Parker 10.
Against the top-seeded Orange, Ohio State must find a way to maintain defensive effectiveness for a full 40 minutes.
Thomas, whose big first half gave the Bucks what seemed to be a sufficient lead, all but disappeared until late in the second half. Though he finished with 26 points, his torrid start could have led to a much bigger night had the team not gone away from him after the break. However, his 10 for 17 night was extremely encouraging.
In spite of the mistakes and the negatives, Ohio State gave a strong performance and bulled its way into the Elite Eight. It seemed as though Sullinger was reliving the bitterness of bowing out against Kentucky last year, and he and Craft refused to let the squad repeat that scenario.
The Buckeyes have now bested Loyola (MD), Gonzaga, and Cincinnati en route to a collision with ‘Cuse.