PITTSBURGH – Gonzaga clawed back from a 10-point deficit to forge a tie and somehow had a Consol Energy Center crowd roaring despite a preponderance of Ohio State scarlet in the stands.
Robert Sacre waved his arms in the middle of the Bulldogs’ zone defense, asking for more noise. The game was there for the taking, and momentum seemed to be on Gonzaga’s side.
But it was the second-seeded Buckeyes who made the game-deciding shots and key free throws. No. 10 Gonzaga missed five consecutive shots, including Kevin Pangos’ 3-pointer that rattled in and out, and Ohio State escaped with a 73-66 third-round NCAA men’s basketball tournament victory in front of 18,588 fans Saturday.
“That’s what this tournament is all about, those big runs and making those late shots,” said Bulldogs freshman guard Gary Bell Jr., sounding wise beyond his years. “When we tied it up I thought we were going to surge through, but it was a game of runs and Ohio State made the last one.”
Elias Harris’ 3-pointer completed Gonzaga’s comeback from a 58-48 deficit, knotting the score at 61. The Buckeyes used a pair of low-post buckets from sophomore forward Jared Sullinger, who had been unable to get untracked for most of the second half, and made 8 of 11 free throws in the last 3:35 to hold off the Bulldogs.
Sullinger connected on two 5-footers over taller defenders, and his pair of free throws with 33.5 seconds left gave Ohio State a 68-61 lead. At the other end, Harris missed a 3 and Pangos, who made his first shot attempt before missing 10 of his last 12, was off target on the next two possessions.
Sullinger missed the front end of a 1-and-1 and Gonzaga had a chance to tie with 1:25 left, but Pangos’ 3 from the corner did everything but go down.
“I’d say of the 13 shots, 10 felt good and three of them I might have rushed at the end when I had to take them,” Pangos said. “I don’t care about the 13. That one when we were down three felt so good. I was so relaxed. It didn’t fall for me.”
Ohio State (29-7) moves into the Sweet 16 where it will face today’s Florida State-Cincinnati winner. Gonzaga (26-7), which exited the last three NCAAs with blowout losses, did many of the things it wanted to do – winning the boards, taking care of the ball and making Sullinger work for his points – but couldn’t overcome 39.3 percent shooting and Ohio State’s balance.
“We weren’t great, but man we competed,” coach Mark Few said. “We went toe-to-toe with a really good team. It wouldn’t surprise me if they are cutting down the nets in New Orleans.”
Ohio State cut down Gonzaga behind sophomore guard Aaron Craft’s stellar performance at both ends of the court, Sullinger’s 18 points, Deshaun Thomas’ 18 points and seven boards, and William Buford’s 13 points and five rebounds. Craft played all 40 minutes and had 17 points, 10 assists and three steals.
“They did a good job focusing on Jared and the other guys,” Craft said. “That kind of left me a little open.”
Bell scored 18 points, nine in GU’s game-tying run, and had five assists. Harris finished with 16 points and seven rebounds, and Pangos added 10 points.
With Sullinger on the bench with two fouls, Gonzaga took a 28-21 lead on Sacre’s three-point play. Sacre and Harris then picked up their second fouls and left the game. Thomas struck for 10 points as Ohio State used a 12-5 run to take a 39-37 lead at half.
Gonzaga, which scored 24 points in the first 10 minutes, needed 20 minutes to score its next 24 points against the Buckeyes, who rank 13th in scoring defense (59.1 points). Craft scored the first seven points of the second half, and Thomas’ putback extended Ohio State’s lead to 58-48.
Gonzaga went to a zone defense and the Buckeyes began misfiring from the perimeter. Bell brought the Bulldogs back, draining a 3-pointer, four free throws and a short bank shot. After Harris’s tying 3-pointer, the Buckeyes went to Sullinger, and the All-American delivered.
“I knew creating contact wasn’t going to work, so I just went with a little bit of finesse,” the 265-pound Sullinger said.
Bell’s 3 cut the deficit to 70-66, but Buford made 1 of 2 foul shots.
“It hurts,” Harris said, “but compared to the last two years this was a really winnable game, and we made it tough for 40 minutes. It came down to those open shots and we weren’t able to make them and they knocked down theirs.”