Talented Ohio State group falls short again

NEW ORLEANS -- Thad Matta’s attitude is incredibly healthy.

It was a year ago, after Ohio State lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on a final possession, when Matta sat back and reflected on the phenomenal regular season the Buckeyes had with just a few blemishes.

He was composed again Saturday night, in yet another situation in which the Buckeyes were the favorite to advance, but failed to do so because of late-game execution.

“I’ll get back to the hotel and decompress, but I’m so proud of these guys that they put us in a situation to win a national championship,’’ Matta said after the Buckeyes unfathomably blew a nine-point halftime lead and lost to Kansas 64-62 in the national semifinal.

“There were so many unknowns with this basketball team and to sit here and see that we won 31 games on March 31,’’ Matta said. “I’m not happy we lost the game, but we were there. We had a shot.’’

The Buckeyes have become a consistent winner under Matta. He has survived multiple early entrants departing for the NBA. He continues to recruit elite, NBA first-round talent and at times lottery talent. He isn’t doing anything wrong here. But his team has simply missed on a few key situations in consecutive seasons.

Jared Sullinger was there for both. A year ago, he had David Lighty, William Buford and Jon Diebler as complementary pieces, along with point guard Aaron Craft.

This season, Sullinger, DeShaun Thomas and Buford were the staples along with Craft. But this Ohio State team wasn’t prepared for a bit of a curve.

It came Saturday night, when foul trouble forced Thomas to play only 23 minutes. That changed everything for the Buckeyes.

Kansas double-teamed Sullinger and he suddenly became ineffective. Matta said that he had to use Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams more, which meant they were in the post and not able to draw Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey away from the basket, which was the game plan.

“That was a pivotal point,’’ Matta said. “We couldn’t extend our lead and make our run.’’

Still, Ohio State had a lead with 2:22 remaining. It was three points, but you could feel momentum shifting. Withey came up with multiple blocks, Craft and Buford each missed a layup and the Jayhawks made free throws to give KU a three-point lead with 1:08 remaining.

The lead was down to one point and then three again when Tyshawn Taylor converted two free throws with eight seconds left.

Taylor stole the ensuing inbounds pass, only to turn it over immediately. That gave the Buckeyes one more chance. Self called for a foul on Craft with two seconds remaining. Craft made the first, but then committed a lane violation on the second when he purposely missed the shot.

Then, with Craft almost looking in disbelief and Sullinger in awe, Sullinger sat on the court and pulled his jersey over his head.

It’s hard to imagine that Ohio State had a nine-point halftime lead, forced 17 turnovers and still lost. But Sullinger’s 5-of-19 shooting was a clear indication that Withey’s length bothered him. Thomas’ 3-for-14 night as well as his foul trouble made the loss easier to understand.

“We just didn’t execute down the stretch,’’ said Sullinger. “We had shots we normally make and we missed. Kansas played smarter and won at the end.’’

Sullinger said he wasn’t expecting the double-team and was thrown off guard. He was noble in his praise for Kansas.

“Good job by Coach Self to switch it up on me,’’ Sullinger said.

And so Kansas will play Kentucky in the national title game. Ohio State will go home, relishing a wonderful regular season that ended with wins at Northwestern and Michigan State to force a three-way tie for the Big Ten title with the Spartans and Michigan. The postseason was highlighted by an Elite Eight victory over Syracuse in the East Regional in Boston.

Whether that camouflages the ending is still to be determined. Ohio State will leave with a missed opportunity for a title. It’s not a reach to consider that the Buckeyes were one of the best teams a year ago, and a win over Kentucky would have set them up for a showdown with North Carolina to get to the Final Four.

There are a lot of ifs to that scenario.

But there is also a consistency: Ohio State couldn’t close then, just as it failed to do Saturday.

“It’s very empty,’’ said Sullinger. “To see someone like William Buford who can’t return to school hurts. He gave it his all these last four years. You feel for him.’’

Sullinger was noncommittal about his future. He hardly showed that he should definitely bolt for the NBA. If he’s gone, then Ohio State will rebuild again. And if he stays, then clearly the Buckeyes will be back as a title contender.

One thing is certain, though: The Buckeyes are a team and program that commands respect with its winning mentality, but still hasn’t found that ability to edge across the finish line with timely execution.