This time, Ohio State made sure it wouldn't come down to another heartbreaking miss.
The Buckeyes turned aside Cincinnati's second-half rally, using a 17-1 run to pull away from the Bearcats and post an 81-66 victory in a Sweet 16 contest Thursday night in Boston's TD Garden.
Before the game, it was all about the Battle of Ohio. By the end, the storyline was about Ohio State's return to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2007.
"It's obviously a very, very good feeling to be down to eight tomorrow night," said head coach Thad Matta, who had reached this stage with OSU only once before in eight seasons. "I couldn't be happier for this team."
The Buckeyes, the East Region's second-seeded team, improved to 30-7 and will face top-seeded Syracuse – victors Thursday against Wisconsin – for the right to advance to the Final Four in New Orleans.
"It feels great," guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. "Right now, a win is a win. You feel good, but this is not what we came here for. We have another game to go, and we're trying to make it to New Orleans. Right now, you have to take the win as a win and keep battling because it's not over."
There were a number of keys to Ohio State's win, from the dominating frontcourt pairing of Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas – who combined for 49 points and 18 rebounds – to the steady contributions of all five starters on the floor.
But the biggest difference was Ohio State's defensive intensity down the stretch. After Cincinnati took a 52-48 lead at the 11:34 mark of the second half, the Buckeyes gave up only one point over the next six minutes and change, forcing the Bearcats to miss four shots and turn the ball over five times in that span.
"(The rally) definitely started on defense," said point guard Aaron Craft, who finished with six steals.
From there, Ohio State's multifaceted offense took over. Sullinger hit three free throws in a row to make it a one-point game before Craft put the Buckeyes ahead for good, 53-52.
After Thomas hit a tip-in on a missed William Buford dunk, Cashmere Wright made one of two free throws for Cincinnati to make it 55-53, but the Buckeyes responded with the next 10 points to put the game away.
Smith started the run with a cool trey from the right wing, then Craft coolly nailed another three, Smith hit a quick layup after a great entry pass from Sullinger and finally the big man nailed a jumper.
"We were able to get back on our horse and keep fighting," Smith said. "We knew they were going to keep going back at us so we responded pretty well."
Thomas finished with 26 points to lead the attack while Sullinger had his 16th double-double of the year with 23 points and 11 rebounds. Smith had 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting – including 3 of 4 on threes – while Craft had 11 points and five assists.
"I was really good in that zone, flashing and kicking it down to Sully and just getting in the open area and just knocking down shots," Thomas said after his second 25-plus-point performance in the tournament. "That's what got me going."
Cashmere Wright led the sixth-seeded Bearcats with 18 points before fouling out late while leading scorer Sean Kilpatrick added 15.
"We had a great season," Kilpatrick said. "We had a great run. Can't be more proud. I wish we could have went further, but we had a great run."
The game looked like it would be a fairly easy task for Ohio State through the opening 20 minutes as the Buckeyes took a 37-25 lead to the break. Thomas was dominating, posting 20 points by the intermission, while Sullinger added 10 points and nine rebounds as Ohio State had its way inside of Cincinnati's zone defense.
However, Cincinnati would not go quietly. The Bearcats switched to man-to-man defense to slow down the Buckeyes, but the real story was how Cincinnati ripped off 27 points in the opening eight and a half minutes of the second, taking a four-point lead at 52-48 when Yancy Gates made a free throw coming out of the under-12 media timeout.
"For some reason guys thought that they were going to stop fighting," Smith said. "We got into our relaxed mode and took a chill pill, but they came out fighting."
However, Sullinger made one of two free throws on OSU's next trip down the floor to stem the tide.
A few minutes later, the Buckeyes were truly Elite.
Ohio State made 8 of 17 three-pointers. … The Buckeyes took a 6-4 lead in the all-time series with their in-state rivals. … Cincinnati ended its season 26-10.