So close and yet …
Ohio State squandered several first-half leads of 13 points Saturday and bowed out of the NCAA Tournament, dropping a heart-rending 64-62 decision to Kansas at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
The Buckeyes fell victim to a pair of 13-4 runs by the Jayhawks in the second half. The first came in the initial six minutes that wiped out OSU’s 34-25 halftime lead and made it a 38-38 contest at the 14:06 mark. And the second came down the stretch during a four-plus-minute run as Kansas overcame a 55-49 deficit with 5:22 to go and went on top by a 62-59 margin with 1:08 remaining.
Ohio State still had a chance to grab victory in the waning seconds. Senior guard William Buford slammed an offensive rebound home to make it 62-61 with 9.6 seconds left, and the Buckeyes had one final possession after Kansas senior point guard Tyshawn Taylor bagged a pair of free throws to put his team ahead by three again at 64-61 with 8.3 seconds showing on the clock.
The Jayhawks elected to foul OSU sophomore point guard Aaron Craft with 2.9 seconds remaining, but after Craft made the opening end of a one-and-one, he was whistled for a lane violation when he crossed the foul line too early after trying to intentionally miss his second free throw.
Buford led four Buckeyes in double figures with a game-high tying 19 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the floor. Sophomore All-American Jared Sullinger added 13 points to go along with a game-high 11 rebounds while Craft tallied 11 points, three assists and three steals. Sophomore guard Lenzell Smith Jr. chipped with 10 points.
Sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas was limited to only nine points on 3-of-14 shooting and played only 24 minutes because of foul problems.
The Buckeyes made 12 of their first 25 shots in the game, but went ice cold thereafter, finishing 20 for 59 (33.9 percent) for the game. An 0-for-11 streak to start the second half allowed Kansas to get back in it.
The Jayhawks were led by All-America forward Thomas Robinson, who had 19 points and eight rebounds. Junior guards Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson added 15 and 13 points, respectively, combining to make 11 of 16 shots from the floor. Kansas shot 25 for 56 (44.6 percent) for the game.
The Buckeyes spotted Kansas the game’s first two points but were clearly the first-half aggressors from that point on. Smith bagged a three-pointer at the 18:06 mark to give OSU its first lead at 3-2 and it was an advantage the Buckeyes kept throughout the opening 20 minutes.
Ohio State used a 10-2 run midway through the half to take a 13-point lead at 26-13 at the 6:11 mark and managed to preserve that cushion almost until the break. Smith hit a pair of free throws to make it 34-21 with 42 seconds left, but then some sloppy play in the final minute cost the Buckeyes their double-digit lead.
Craft was whistled for a foul on a Taylor drive, and the Kansas senior point guard converted both ends of a one-and-one to make it 34-23 with 23.6 seconds on the clock. Then after OSU called a timeout to call a final play, Craft’s drive to the basket was swatted away by junior center Jeff Withey and the Jayhawks had just enough time to get a layup the other way from Releford.
Those two points, which came just a whisker before the buzzer, allowed Kansas to pull within nine at 34-25 at halftime.
Johnson and Robinson led the way for the Jayhawks as the second half began, accounting for 11 of their team’s points during the initial 13-4 run that tied the game at 38 with 14:06 remaining.
The Buckeyes seemed to weather that storm, however, and moved back up by six at 55-49 when Sullinger hit a pair of free throws at the 5:22 mark. OSU made 14 of 15 attempts (93.3 percent) at the foul line in the contest; Kansas was 11 for 14 (78.6 percent).
But after Sullinger’s foul shots, the Jayhawks went on another 13-4 run, this one capped by a hard-running layup from Johnson that made it 62-59 with 1:08 remaining and set up the frenetic last few seconds.
Ohio State finished the 2011-12 season with a 31-8 record and fell in the national semifinals for the sixth time in 11 trips to the Final Four. The 1959-60 team remains the only team in program history to win the NCAA Tournament championship.
Kansas (32-6) advances to play Kentucky (37-2) in the championship game set for Monday night. The Wildcats took a 69-61 victory over Louisville in the other semifinal game played Saturday night.