Aaron Craft scored 17 points and dropped 10 dimes for his first career double-double, leading Ohio State to a 73-66 win over a very tough and well-coached Gonzaga team in the round of 32. The Buckeyes (29-7) advance to the Sweet 16 for the third straight year, where they’ll await the winner of tomorrow night’s Cincinnati-Florida State affair. Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas each added 18 points and William Buford 13 more. Ohio State turned around a seven-point, first-half deficit and built the lead to 10 a couple of times after the break, only to see the Bulldogs (26-7) claw back into it, tying the game at 61 with 4:05 to play. The Buckeyes dug deep and finished on a 12-4 run, holding Gonzaga scoreless for a 3:41 stretch late.
Things looked ugly early for Ohio State. When Jared Sullinger went to the bench with two fouls, Gonzaga led 24-20 and 9:13 still remained before halftime. The lead grew to 27-20 before the Buckeyes started chipping away, led by Craft. The sophomore got things going with a layup and-one. It ignited a 19-10 run to close the half. Thomas scored 12 straight points, including two triples off assists from a slicing Craft in the run, and the dreamy one capped the scoring with a penetrating bucket off the glass, putting his team ahead 39-37 at the break. During that run Craft also notched his 87th steal of the season, tying Mike Conley’s school record. Sullinger scored eight before leaving the game, including a pair of treys early in the game.
Gonzaga had led most of the first half due to seven OSU turnovers, and a 15-9 rebounding advantage. Eight of those boards came on the offensive glass, and the Bulldogs outscored Ohio State 13-4 in second-chance points in the opening period. Sam Dower scored nine off the bench for Gonzaga, pulling down five offensive boards. Amir Williams provided three minutes of excellent defense for the Buckeyes. Ohio State helped its cause by shooting 61.5% (16-26) in the first half, including 46.2% outside the arc (6-13). The OSU defense also picked up after Sully left, forcing Gonzaga to give the ball away. Turnovers were 7-1 at one point, but the Zags turned it over five times down the stretch, aiding Ohio State’s run.
Craft opened the second half with a pair of blow-by layups, then followed a Robert Sacre jumper with a layup and-one. Elias Harris hit a jumper for the Bulldogs, but Thomas and Buford knocked down bombs off assists from No. 4, building the lead to 10 at 52-42 with 14:23 remaining. Craft’s destruction of Gonzaga was so complete that Mark Few then scrapped his defense and went to a zone. The Bulldogs responded with a 5-0 run on a Harris jumper and Kevin Pangos triple. Sullinger knocked down four straight freebies, to offset Gary Bell Jr. going 1-2, before Thomas laid in a miss of a Buford trey, restoring the double-digit lead with 9:02 remaining, 58-48.
After that, Ohio State went cold and started forcing shots against the zone, allowing Gonzaga to go on an 8-0 run in 3:02 to cut the lead to 58-56. Lenzelle Smith Jr., who scored just seven points, stopped the bleeding. Smith drilled a bomb from the left wing, pushing the lead to 61-58. Undeterred, Gonzaga scored the next five points on two Bell free throws and a Harris trey. With 3:38 to play, Sully snapped the tie with a man-sized shot over the 7-foot Sacre. The Buckeyes tightened the screws defensively after that, though they did get some help when the Bulldogs missed an open triple. From that point it came down to rebounding Gonzaga misses and making free throws.
Thomas pulled down seven boards in the game, including five offensively, as the Buckeyes won 5-3 on the offensive glass after halftime. Buford and Smith collected five rebounds each, with Sully pulling only four. Bell led Gonzaga with 18 points, with Harris (16) and Pangos (10) also reaching double figures. Pangos didn’t shoot particularly well, hitting only 3-13 overall and 2-8 deep. He was replaced for long stretches by David “Son of John” Stockton, who created problems with his penetration, dropping five dimes off the bench. Gonzaga’s bench outscored Ohio State’s 10-0.
In the end, Ohio State escaped a very balanced and tough team that I didn’t think it matched up particularly well with. Shooting 37.5% outside the arc helped, but it was Craft’s imagination and unexpected offense that really pushed the Buckeyes past the Bulldogs. And he still played his usual stellar defense. He was the leader the team needed, and his movement allowed Thomas to flourish on offense.
For Ohio State, the next postseason stop is in Boston.
Notes: Ohio State is 1-0 all-time against Gonzaga (first meeting, y’all)…The Buckeyes improved to 7-5 against the West Coast Conference…Buford is 36 points shy of Jerry Lucas for third in OSU history…Sully is just six points shy of his second straight 600-point season, and he moved into 15th on the all-time OSU rebounding list with 688. He also passed John Havlicek for 31st on the school’s scoring list, with 1,223 points…Craft’s 17 points tie his season high, tying his effort against Duke.