The trouble with the NCAA tournament is also the thing that makes it so hard to win—only one team gets to finish the season happy. For most of the 40 minutes Saturday night in New Orleans, the Buckeyes played like a team on its way to a championship match-up against Kentucky. But the final moments of both halves served as the microcosm of a game in which Ohio State (31-8) faltered down the stretch in a 64-62 season-ending loss to Kansas (32-6). The first half ended with Aaron Craft attacking the basket too early and yielding a buzzer beating layup at the other end after Jeff Withey blocked his shot. That two points served as the final margin, but the bigger problem was Ohio State’s 8-33 shooting after halftime.
William Buford played like a warrior, pouring in 19 points in his final outing in scarlet and gray, tying Jerry Lucas for third on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,990. He also grabbed seven rebounds, with an assist and a steal. His late rebound and thunderous dunk gave Ohio State a chance, but the Jayhawks hit their freebies and smartly fouled Craft in the back court. Craft hit the first, but was whistled for a lane violation while deliberately trying to miss the second. The rule states that the shooter can’t break the plane of the free throw line until the ball hits the rim, and it was the right call. Then the final two seconds ticked off on a quick Kansas inbound play before Ohio State could sort out its defensive assignments. Craft was questioning the official on the play but I’m not sure it was his man who was open. It’s a moot point, because the game was lost before that play.
Jared Sullinger appeared bothered by the combination of Withey, Thomas Robinson and Kevin Young, along with the perception that the foul calls were not favoring him under the basket. Sully was 3-8 in the first half but 5-19 in the game, scoring 13 points and adding 11 rips for another double-double. An assist, a steal and three blocks rounded out his stat line. Craft added 11 points, three assists and three steals, but no boards. Lenzelle Smith provided 10 points and four rebounds.
Entering the game, I felt Kansas and Ohio State were very similar. I hoped that Deshaun Thomas could match Robinson in scoring—a reasonable assumption based on his tournament to that point. If that happened, I felt confident the remainder of the Buckeyes would outscore the rest of the Jayhawks. Robinson scored 19 to Thomas’ nine, so my logic was solid, but it didn’t happen. Thomas started the game with the jitters, jacking up rushed shots early in the shot clock. Later he was reduced to a spectator for long stretches due to foul trouble. Until he picked up his second foul, I thought Thomas was at least playing good defense on Robinson, who was every bit the All-American on this night.
Ohio State sprinted to a 7-2 lead before Kansas settled in, and played an excellent first half. The Buckeyes’ lead reached double figures on Thomas’ lone triple of the night, with 7:21 to play in the half, at 24-13. Thomas tipped home a rebound moments later to make it 26-13. The teams traded points for a few minutes, while Sam Thompson contributed some outstanding defense in relief of Buford, who was sitting with two fouls. Thomas hit the bench with his second foul with 1:23 remaining, seconds after his shot restored Ohio State’s 13-point lead. Tank went to the bench and Robinson scored on the next possession, setting up the painful closing sequence that saw Craft try to take on 7-foot center Jeff Withey. The obvious result was a blocked shot, but things got worse when Robinson’s outlet came to Tyshawn Taylor who set up a Travis Releford layup that left his fingers just milliseconds before the halftime buzzer.
After the half, Ohio State just didn’t look like itself. Part of that was Kansas and I will give the Jayhawks full credit for ratcheting up the intensity in the second half. Bill Self needs to bottle his halftime speech. However, even with Kansas playing better, Ohio State started selecting its shots poorly and missing the good, open looks. By the time Aaron Craft hit a triple to score Ohio State’s first second-half field goal, 6:58 had run off the clock and the Jayhawks had erased the nine-point halftime deficit. Lenzelle Smith gave the Buckeyes a six-point edge on a trey with 11:13 to play, and after three Kansas points, Buford hit another bomb. Kansas scored the next five on a Connor Teahan three and Releford layup. From that point on, the game was played in a very tight window.
Releford hit two freebies to put Kansas ahead with 2:48 to play. Thomas hit two on the other end and Craft’s steal and layup put the Buckeyes ahead by three, 59-56, with 2:22 remaining. After that, things got ugly. Craft and Buford missed consecutive layups, either of which could have drawn a foul call (but didn’t). Withey was credited with blocks on both shots, but there was body contact, although officiating is not the reason Ohio State lost. During this period, Kansas scored six straight points to take a three-point lead with under a minute to play. The teams traded turnovers, taking the game under 30 seconds. Thomas tried and missed a pair of bombs, with Buford flushing the rebound of the second miss. Taylor nailed two foul shots at the other end and then the frustrating end game took place.
The Buckeyes got zero bench points, while the Jayhawks’ reserves scored three. The lack of offense off the pine finally bit Ohio State with Thomas relegated to his chair for much of the game. A bigger issue was the glass, with Kansas owning Ohio State 41-30. Much of that owes to Thomas’ foul trouble, as he played much of the first half and the Jayhawks only out-rebounded the Buckeyes by three in the first 20 minutes. Both teams blocked a lot of shots—Kansas 8, Ohio State 7.
In the end, Ohio State lost two games to Kansas in which it had a missing man. Sullinger’s injury owed much to the loss in Lawrence, but Thomas being bench-ridden in the Superdome was just as costly, regardless that he had an off night shooting. He had just gotten into his rhythm late in the first half when that second foul call came. The lack of a bench scorer to replace him was simply too much to overcome against a very good Kansas team.
Much like the first meeting, Elijah Johnson was a problem. He notched a double-double with 13 points and 10 boards. Releford added 15 points and Tyshawn Taylor scored 10 with eight assists but also five turnovers. Craft did a great job on Taylor defensively.
So that’s it. The season always ends abruptly when there are still games to be played when your team has been eliminated. We’ll take solace in the fact there is only one game left. We’ll bid goodbye to William Buford and thank him for four years of excellent service, and we may bid farewell to others too. That remains to be seen. I think most of us would have gladly taken a Final Four appearance a month ago. Many people had high expectations for this year’s squad, but I think Thad Matta did an amazing job getting four sophomores and a wildly inconsistent Buford to the Final Four.