PITTSBURGH – Gonzaga was satisfied with its defensive effort on Ohio State standout forward Jared Sullinger.
But the rest of the Buckeyes, particularly sophomore point guard Aaron Craft, sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas and senior guard William Buford, made timely contributions as Ohio State held off Gonzaga 73-66 Saturday at Consol Energy Center.
“They have a lot of weapons,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We picked our poison. We wanted them to hit jump shots and cover down on the bigs. They did a great job stepping out and hitting them.”
Sullinger made two early 3-pointers, the first requiring a favorable high bounce, but he sat out a good chunk of the half with two fouls. He was ineffective in the second half trying to power inside against 7-foot center Robert Sacre. Gonzaga went to a zone midway through the half and Sullinger continued to struggle to get good looks. With the game on the line, though, he scored six of his 18 points in the final 3:35.
“We made his job tough,” Sacre said. “He made some tough shots.”
Craft did what he tends to do – play outstanding defense, run Ohio State’s offense and feed open teammates. He also delivered 17 points, tying his season high and two short of his career best. Thomas had 10 points in a 2½-minute span, helping Ohio State take a 39-37 lead at half. He made back-to-back 3s, then went inside to follow his miss and connect on a tough 6-foot floater, despite Mike Hart being in pretty good defensive position on both plays.
“Those are frustrating because you think you do your job and he still gets a bucket on you or you don’t finish with a box-out,” Hart said.
Guard Gary Bell Jr. said Buford had perhaps the best midrange game Gonzaga has seen all season. Bell called Craft “a ballhawk who takes pride in his defense. Every time he was on me, he made it a little tougher for me.”
GU’s zone slowed down the Buckeyes’ offense. Ohio State made just 3 of 11 3s in the second half.
“As we were preparing, by our calculation they had played 6 percent zone all season. I actually said to (assistant coach) Chris Jent, ‘Do we need to put in a clip for zone?’ ” coach Thad Matta said. “He said, ‘No, they won’t play zone.’ Fortunately we talked about it and put it on the board before the game. Our guys weren’t in shock.”
The loss brought an end to the Gonzaga careers of seniors Sacre and Marquise Carter.
“Fun, just fun,” Sacre said of his five seasons at Gonzaga. “It’s been a great growing experience and sometimes growing pains, but I love this program dearly.”
Junior forward Elias Harris said both will be missed.
“Rob has been there for me since Day One. He’s really a family member, a brother,” Harris said. “Marquise had a huge impact last year, and even though this season didn’t go the way he wanted he was still positive every single day at practice. That shows how strong of a person he is. I consider them two of my closest friends.”
Gonzaga wanted to force Ohio State to use its bench, but Craft and Buford logged 40 minutes and Thomas played 39. GU’s bench outscored Ohio State’s 10-0, led by Sam Dower’s nine points. Dower also collected six rebounds, five offensive, in 18 minutes. “I didn’t give a great effort rebounding (in Thursday’s win), so I tried to go hard to the boards,” he said. … Harris said he’ll take some time to decide whether he returns for his senior year or declares for the NBA draft. “I didn’t think about it, I was focused on the season,” he said. “I’ll know more in a few weeks.” … Pangos on Craft’s defense: “He’s so active, quick feet, really quick hands. He pressures you to speed up a little bit. I actually didn’t feel too bad throughout the game, but you could tell he was there.”