Seeing its season flash before its eyes was enough to inspire Ohio State to extend it.
Twelve points ahead of Cincinnati to start the second half, the Buckeyes surrendered the lead in less than six minutes. It took them less than four minutes to regain it, though, and they went on to defeat Cincinnati 81-66 last night in TD Garden and advance to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years.
Ohio State (30-7), the second seed in the East Region, will play top-seeded Syracuse (30-2) in the regional final on Saturday. The winner earns a trip to the Final Four next week in New Orleans. Syracuse edged Wisconsin 64-63 last night.
Deshaun Thomas scored 26 points to lead Ohio State but was limited to six points in the second half. His slack was picked up by Jared Sullinger, who finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds, Lenzelle Smith Jr. with 15 points and Aaron Craft with 11 points, five assists and six steals.
Craft scored all of his points in the second half.
Cashmere Wright led sixth-seeded Cincinnati (26-11) with 18 points.
It was only the second time the Buckeyes and Bearcats have met since they played back-to-back NCAA championship games in 1961 and ’62. The previous meeting was in December 2006 in the Wooden Tradition in Indianapolis. Ohio State won 72-50.
Ohio State led by 12 points at halftime but quickly lost the momentum it built in the first half.
After trading baskets to start the second half, back-to-back three-point baskets by the Bearcats’ Sean Kilpatrick started a 14-2 run that tied the score at 41 with 15:10 remaining. The Buckeyes had turnovers on three consecutive possessions.
Another three, by Wright, gave Cincinnati its first lead of the half, 44-43, with 14:03 to play, and the Bearcats increased their advantage to as much as four points in the next few minutes, taking a 52-48 lead on a three-point play by Wright with 11:34 left.
Just as quickly as UC turned the game its way with its 25-9 burst, the Buckeyes turned it back their way and regained the upper hand with a 17-1 run.
Ohio State went to Sullinger in the lane on consecutive possessions, he was fouled, and he made three of four free throws to trim the deficit to a point. The second foul also sent Wright to the bench briefly with three fouls.
After the Bearcats fumbled a pass on their next possession, Craft’s first points of the game, on a shot from the left wing, regained the lead for the Buckeyes, and they built it to 12 points in the next 4 1/2 minutes.
Cincinnati got out to a 5-0 lead before Thomas broke the ice for the Buckeyes with his first basket 2 1/2 minutes into the game.
A three from the right corner by Smith gave Ohio State its first lead, 9-7, with 15:19 to play, and six straight points by Thomas increased it to 15-9 in the next three minutes and forced UC coach Mick Cronin to use the first of the two timeouts he called in the first half.
The Bearcats kept their deficit manageable until Thomas went off again in the final three minutes of the half.
After a pair of free throws by Cashmere Wright cut Ohio State’s lead to 27-22, Thomas netted a pair of three pointers from the right corner 25 seconds apart to boost the Buckeyes’ lead to 33-22 and force another Cincinnati timeout.
To no avail. Ohio State pressed, Smith stole the inbounds pass and fed Shannon Scott for a layup and a 35-22 lead with 2:10 to play.
The Buckeyes led 37-25 at halftime. They shot 45.2 percent from the field and limited Cincinnati to 38.5 percent.
The Bearcats had nine turnovers in the first half, seven in the last 8:26. Craft had three steals and forced a couple more turnovers by helping off his man.