April 1, 2012

Rock Chalked

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Follow Noon | Rowland | Givler | Birmingham

NEW ORLEANS - Year after year the NCAA Tournament is remembered for the buzzer beaters. With one game remaining in the 2012 edition there have been none. Instead, it's been the year of the lane violation.

And on Saturday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it appeared prominently once again in the Final Four. After squandering a 13-point lead, Ohio State found itself down three points to Kansas in the final 2.9 seconds when Aaron Craft stepped to the free throw line.

He made the first shot setting up a purposely missed second free throw. Craft executed it perfectly and came down with the rebound.

One problem. He crossed the line before the ball touched the rim.

Game over. Kansas 64, Ohio State 62.

"I went over the line early, apparently, and you have to live with it," Craft said. "They've called (violations) all tournament."

When Craft stepped to the line, he rehearsed the situation in his mind. He didn't want to miss to the side and leave it up to the guys down low. Craft was going to get the ball himself, and it nearly worked.

"I knew we had to miss it," he said, "and I thought that'd be the best way for us to get the ball."

The final 2.9 seconds did not define the game, though. The Buckeyes dominated the first 19 minutes before giving way to lackadaisical offense and pushover defense.

Ohio State made just eight field goals (24 percent) the entire second half, while Kansas shot 54 percent from the field after the break. Craft, Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas combined to make only 12 of 44 shots from the field. Sullinger was two of 11 in the second half.

"If you look at our loses this year, the way Jared and Deshaun have been shooting, eight for 33, we needed one more guy to put the ball in the basket," Matta said. I thought we had some second looks, they just didn't go down. You shoot 24% in the second half against a really good team, it's going to be hard to win it."

Thomas was ineffectiveness throughout the game and hampered by foul trouble. Each deficiency plagued the Ohio State offense. Thomas was limited to 23 minutes, but even when he played, he didn't provide the production he did throughout the first two weekends of the tournament. Thomas finished with nine points on three of 14 shooting from the field, including one of seven from beyond the arc.

In the previous four tournament games, Thomas averaged more than 22 points and made 52 percent of his shots. On Saturday, his foul trouble led to Kansas double-teaming Sullinger in the post.

"The game plan going in was we were going to have to spread (Sullinger) out and give him time to work, but also Deshaun the opportunity to stretch the defense," Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. "That was probably the biggest advantage I think that they had on us. Our inability to put the ball in the basket there was something that enabled them to gather momentum and get themselves going."

Jeff Withey was the catalyst on defense for Kansas. He blocked seven shots and altered several others. Time and again when Ohio State reached the basket, Withey was there to impact the play. On one sequence in the second half, Withey rejected Sullinger on three consecutive shot attempts.

"Just his size and presence," Matta said, "he's good enough in the post that he commands a man and a half down there with his size. He really, really complements what they've got out there. He seems to really know his role and take great pride in it, both offensively and defensively."

The ending of each half had a huge impact on the game's outcome and, predictably, it was not in the Buckeyes' favor.

They led by 13 multiple times in the first half, but the Jayhawks were able to close the gap with four points in the final 45 seconds. Kansas carried that momentum into the second half by going on a 13-4 run over the first six minutes. That spurt coincided with the Buckeyes missing their first 10 field goal attempts. OSU held a four-point lead with 2:22 left in the game, but only scored three points the rest of the way.

"It was a tale of two halves," Kansas head coach Bill Self said. "They dominated us the first half. We were playing in quicksand, it looked like. The light came on and then we were much more aggressive the second half."

All-American Thomas Robinson willed Kansas down the stretch, finishing with 19 points, and Tyshawn Taylor[db] made two free throws with 8.3 seconds left.

The Jayhawks led 2-0 and didn't get another lead until the 2:48 mark of the second half, when [db]Travis Releford made two free throws to put Kansas in front 56-55. Ohio State answered by scoring four straight points. But they remained scoreless until the final 10 seconds.

When seasons end in heartbreak - and Ohio State's have the past four seasons - it's hard to focus on the good. Sweet 16 exits in 2010 and 2011 left nothing but a bad taste in the teams mouth and drew ire from fans. Craft displayed a different side after a gut punch to Kansas.

"I love these guys," he said in the locker room. "So many people doubted us and didn't give us the time of day. These guys did a great job sticking together through the rough spots. It doesn't end how you like it, but I wouldn't want it with any other group of guys."


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