BOSTON -- The game wasn't supposed to unfold this way. Syracuse was the deeper team. The longer team. The tougher team. The more unified team. But as whistle after whistle pierced the TD Garden air, the fouls first handcuffing stars and then turning rotations into rubble, unexpected things began to happen.
Ohio State's complementary players thrived in the cauldron. Syracuse's starters melted under the late-game heat. The script flipped, and the No. 2 seed denied the 1. Ohio State is headed to New Orleans, 77-70 winners in a regional final defined by the refs but punctuated by the "other" Buckeyes: Smith Jr. Williams. Thompson. Ravenel.
On this night, the Buckeyes were tougher. And deeper. And more together. And their stars noticed.
"Lenzelle [Smith], the bigger the game, the bigger he plays," Jared Sullinger said afterward. "With Amir [Williams], Amir always had talent. It's just unfortunately he's playing behind me and Evan [Ravenel] at the time, so watch out for him next year."
Next year arrived about six minutes into tonight's game, a bit after Smith took a blow above the eye that required three stitches and immediately after Sullinger was whistled for his second foul, this one strongly accented with the scent of phantom. He spent the final 14 minutes of the half pinned to the pine, exhorting on Deshaun Thomas and his new frontcourt partners to settle down and hold down the fort until the half. Somehow, they did. Getting seven points, five rebounds and, crucially, 19 combined minutes from the Williams/Ravenel/Thompson trio, the Buckeyes snuck into the break tied at 29, and Syracuse was the team in more significant foul trouble.
The war of attrition continued in the second stanza, and Syracuse took the brunt of it, with Rakeem Christmas and Dion Waiters notably impacted. Meanwhile, Ohio State's regulars found their rhythm, and when they missed, they hammered away on the offensive glass. Syracuse's season-long flaw was exposed again, as the Buckeyes grabbed seven of 12 possible rebounds after the break.
The Buckeyes got 15 second-half points from the well-rested Sullinger, but 16 more came from the recuperated Smith, including a couple of huge 3-pointers late in the shot clock. Thanks in part to some atypical Orange sloppiness down the stretch, the Buckeyes were able to see the game out from the free-throw line late. They never would have been in that position without Smith, and interestingly, they almost weren't.
"He had lost his man on defense and given up a three and then came down and threw a wild pass that almost got picked off, and I was literally saying he doesn't have it at the moment, let's get him out and we'll talk to him," head coach Thad Matta said. "Then he bangs a three, and I'm like, 'He's back!' So we let him ride it out."
Now the Buckeyes will ride down to the Big Easy after a season that was anything but. After hitting bottom following a home loss to Wisconsin, which led to Matta kicking his team out of practice and a team meeting, Ohio State found itself in time to save its season. Road wins at Northwestern and Michigan State helped reinforce a new mission of togetherness and that mantra has held up in some tough spots over the last three NCAA tournament games. Maybe the Ohio State of a month ago wouldn't be here, still alive, still hunting a national title. This version is, thanks in large part to a supporting cast few suspected they had. And don't think the Buckeyes were unaware of that perception.
In the joyous postgame locker room, Sullinger finally arrived after his podium duties and held court near the whiteboard that still listed all the gnarly statistics from the uneven first half. Surrounded by cameras, just before he acknowledged all of the team's non-starters as the MVPs of this game, he had one more thank you to issue. One more reason to give. One more score to settle after a long season following his decision to stay another year in Columbus. One more smile to flash.
"This basketball team heard everything you all said about us, how Ohio State wasn't good enough, how we [weren't] physically gifted, mentally tough enough, immature," he said. "And this basketball team pushed through the adversity. I want to thank you all. You all helped this basketball team."