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BOSTON — When the second half started Saturday night, Ohio State got its All-American back. When the Buckeyes needed him most in the last month of the season, they got him back then too.
After first-half trouble stuck him on the bench, Jared Sullinger’s 15 points in the second half of the East Region final against Syracuse — made by drawing fouls through the Orange defense and hitting skilled post moves over it — carried Ohio State into the Final Four, where the Buckeyes will face Kansas on Saturday night.
In the last week, Sullinger has defiantly called out anyone who had doubted the Buckeyes, but a month ago there was no guarantee this Sullinger would be showing this game again. Even coach Thad Matta intimated that Sullinger wasn’t engaged as he needed to be, but his ability to get back to his former ways helped put the Buckeyes on this new path.
“He understands now how he fits into the maze,” Sullinger’s father, Satch, said Sunday. “Everything’s clicking right now for everyone. I call it one heartbeat.”
Frustrated after a loss to Wisconsin on Feb. 26 in which he scored eight points on 4-for-10 shooting, Sullinger came back two days later with an old lease on life after a talk with Matta and the coaching staff. He vowed to put the distractions of officiating and the outside world behind him.
“At the end of the day [Matta] told me this team goes as I go and just play my game,” Sullinger said on Feb. 28, the day before he scored the game-winning basket in the final seconds at Northwestern. “As long as I play and show emotion and play with energy, this team should be where we were when we were beating teams by 15-plus points.
“I know I’ve probably been dogged by a lot of people who are saying I’m not as good as I used to be. But at the end of the day, it’s not about what they think, it’s about how we can win basketball games.”
Now striding menacingly across the court after the big baskets and leaping from the bench to cheer his teammates when he’s in foul trouble, Sullinger isn’t giving anyone a chance to question how much he is into, and influencing, games. Since the Wisconsin loss, he is averaging 20 points, 9.9 rebounds, and shooting 56.9 percent from the field and 83.6 percent from the foul line. His scoring, rebounding, assists, and shooting are up, and his turnovers are down.
Any questions about the back injury that kept him out of two games in December, and any mentions of foot problems, are gone.
The Buckeyes will get a rematch with the Jayhawks after losing at Kansas 78-67 in December when Sullinger sat as a precaution with his ailing back.
At the time, Matta said Sullinger could have played if it was an NCAA tournament game.
Now it is.
“Sometimes you take a step back when you’re trying to get healthy,” Sullinger said. “With my back problems — I had a back problem, but I don’t have it [any] more. I had plantar fasciitis at the beginning of the year, but now everything is starting to disappear and I’m moving forward.
“It was bothering me, but with me getting healthier and me being able to elevate a little bit more, that’s big time.”