With Ohio State ahead 13-8, Dion Waiters drove to the basket, and Sullinger did everything he could to pull up and not touch the Syracuse guard as he laid the ball into the hoop. But the trialing official blew his whistle – much to the disbelief of Sullinger and pretty much every observer – to send the sophomore to the bench with six points and four rebounds in the opening minutes.
Waiters drained the free throw, too, making the score Ohio State 13, Syracuse 11. By the time there was 9:31 on the clock, the Orange led 22-21 after a Baye Keita dunk, the pro-Syracuse crowd was roaring and it looked like the game might be getting away from Ohio State.
That's when the Buckeyes put their foot down and made a stand. The Buckeyes kept the Orange to only seven points the rest of the half to take the game to the half at 29-all.
With a rested Sullinger ready to come back in the second half, Ohio State was pretty happy with the way it kept itself in the game in the big man's absence.
"To go into halftime tied with Jared sitting 14 minutes was huge for us," assistant coach Jeff Boals said. "We knew once we got Jared back in there we would throw the ball into him and good things would happen."
That was certainly the case, as Sullinger finished with a game-high 19 points in what turned into a 77-70 victory that won the Buckeyes the East Region of the NCAA Tournament and punched their ticket to a Final Four berth in New Orleans.
Afterward, Sullinger was full of praise for the players who kept Ohio State in the game while he was on the bench.
"These guys have played without me before," he said. "They know what they have to do. We just kept competing on the defensive end. I think that's what won the ballgame."
On the other side, Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim had a similar view.
"I just thought we could have gotten some better shots in the first half," the fourth-winningest coach in Division I history said. "We needed to do a better job in the first half offensively, and that's where I think we lost the game. We needed to be in a better position at the end of the half."
It is true that the Orange – which drove to the hoop at will in a Sweet 16 win vs. Wisconsin and had success doing so against the Buckeyes as well – settled for a number of jump shots, with the Buckeye defense badgering Syracuse's Kris Joseph and Waiters into a combined 3-for-14 performance in the half. Only point guard Scoop Jardine, who had seven points and canned 2 of 3 treys, was effective in the early going.
But Jardine largely went missing after Sullinger went out, not putting up a shot from the field and going 1 for 2 from the line. While forwards Rakeem Christmas, C.J. Fair and Keita went a combined 4 for 6 from the field with Sullinger – and then backup Evan Ravenel – in foul trouble, Syracuse chose to largely shoot from the outside. Waiters finished 0 for 3 in that time span while Joseph was 1 for 6, showing just how tough Buckeye guards Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. made it on those players.
When those guards did get to the middle, the presence of freshman Amir Williams was huge as he blocked two shots and affected others. In all, Syracuse went just 6 of 18 from the field with a turnover with Sullinger on the bench, a testament to the gritty performance the Buckeyes put in. The Orange were so frustrated – both by the play and the officiating in the hard-fought game – that Boeheim picked his first technical foul of the year.
"We played hard," forward Deshaun Thomas said. "We didn't back down. We were the tougher team. Coach tells us the tougher team is going to win."
Offensively, Ohio State's game plan went out the window when Sullinger went to the bench. In the early going, he and Thomas linked up, with Sullinger in the high post either distributing the ball, setting screens or picking up passes from Thomas while going to the basket.
With Sullinger out, Thomas was forced into the hole in the zone, taking him off both the low block and the wing, two places he had been effective in his recent hot streak.
"With Jared not on the floor, your game plan changes a little bit," Boals said. "A big part of our game plan was to get the ball below the free-throw line to him, handle double teams, score inside, pass the basketball. Credit to Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams – those guys came in and gave us huge minutes in those 14 minutes."
Still, Ohio State gutted it out offensively, putting up 16 points despite going only 4 for 19 from the floor.
When it was all said and done, those 14 minutes without Sullinger could have kept Ohio State from the Final Four. It's a testament to the team's resilience that they did not.
"We were battling out there," Smith said. "It's always great to have him out there on the floor but at this time in the tournament you can't worry about things like that. You're not going to have guys out there. You can't let that get down. You have to fight even harder."