Gonzaga rallies late but falls to Ohio State 73-66
By WILL GRAVES
PITTSBURGH (AP) Kevin Pangos caught the ball in the corner and let it fly. The unflappable Gonzaga freshman guard watched the arc and figured the Bulldogs had just tied Ohio State with 90 seconds to go.
"I thought it was good for sure," Pangos said.
The ball hit the rim once. It hit the rim twice. For a fleeting second it appeared ready to drop and put Ohio State in danger of becoming the third No. 2 seed to get knocked out of the NCAA tournament on the first weekend.
Not this time. The ball fluttered off the rim and into the hands of Ohio State's William Buford. Jared Sullinger delivered his second baby hook in a span of 2 minutes and the Buckeyes escaped with a 73-66 victory Saturday.
For the 14th straight season, the Bulldogs played deep into March. For the 14th straight season the program that made being "mid-major" cool is heading back to eastern Washington before the Final Four.
Disappointing? Absolutely. Disheartening? Not really. Not after Gonzaga (26-7) took the Buckeyes to the limit.
"We went toe-to-toe with a really good team," coach Mark 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 level Gonzaga has been on the edge of reaching for years. The Bulldogs entered the game with as many NCAA tournament victories as the Buckeyes (29-7) since the program's breakthrough in 1999. Their 18th tourney win appeared to be in reach after Elias Harris drilled a 3-pointer to erase a 10-point deficit and tie it at 61 with 4:05 to go.
Sullinger, however, prevented Gonzaga from becoming the third team in 24 hours to knock off a No. 2 seed. He did it by keeping his composure while dealing with foul trouble and showing off some brains to go with his brawn. In addition to the late hook shots, he also tied a career high by knocking down two 3-pointers.
"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.
Sullinger and DeShaun Thomas scored 18 apiece for the Buckeyes, 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.
"We picked our poison," Few said. "We wanted (them) to hit some jump shots, cover down on the bigs. They did a great job of stepping out and hitting them."
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 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.
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 in the closing minutes, coming up empty on five straight possessions after tying the game. Few had no quibble with the offense, however.
"We got wide-open 3s, got a couple of nice drives down the lane that didn't go," he said. "We definitely had some pretty good looks at it."
The Bulldogs hit those shots with regularity during a 23-point romp against West Virginia 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, 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 punch, but Sullinger delivered the knockout, leaving the Bulldogs with a long flight back to Washington deflated but not dejected.
"I think if you ask the Ohio State guys, they know we hit 'em and we went at 'em," Few said. "We very aggressive."
Updated March 17, 2012