March 17, 2012

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PITTSBURGH (AP)– Ohio State busted the original bracket buster.

Jared Sullingerscored 18 points, including two big baskets in the final 3 minutes to lead the Buckeyes past Gonzaga 73-66 on Saturday and into the round of 16 for the third straight year.

Deshaun Thomas also scored 18 for the second-seeded Buckeyes (29-7), while Aaron Craftadded 17 points and 10 assists. Ohio State will play Florida State or Cincinnati in the East Regional semifinals in Boston on Thursday.

Gary Bell Jr. led No. 7 seed Gonzaga (26-7) with 18 points. The Bulldogs erased a 10-point deficit to tie it at 61 on a 3-pointer by Elias Harris with 4:05 remaining, but Sullinger knocked down two pretty hook shots late while the Zags went cold.

The steady play of Craft and some gritty defense in the final minutes helped Ohio State avoid becoming the third No. 2 seed to lose in less than 24 hours. Fellow heavyweights Duke and Missouri fell to upstarts on Friday from one-bid leagues.

Yet the Buckeyes knew the Bulldogs are hardly scrappy underdogs. They entered the game with 17 NCAA victories over the last 14 seasons, the same as the Buckeyes.

The 18th will have to wait until next year at least, though Gonzaga again showed the mettle that’s made it perhaps the most successful mid-major program in the country.

The Bulldogs appeared to be out of it after a putback by Thomas gave the Buckeyes a 58-48 lead. Gonzaga responded with a 13-3 run capped by a 3-pointer from the corner by Harris.

Then Sullinger, who still thinks about last year’s loss to Kentucky in the regional semifinals, took over. He backed down Gonzaga center Robert Sacre and hit a soft little hook shot from the right block to put Ohio State back in front.

Gonzaga came up empty on its next two trips, yet still came within an inch of tying it up again when Kevin Pangos’ 3-pointer from the right corner went halfway down before rolling back out. William Bufordgrabbed the rebound and Sullinger again delivered with a baby hook to push Ohio State’s lead to 66-61.

The Bulldogs got no closer. By the time Bell banked in an awkward 3-pointer with 11 seconds left, it was too late.

Gonzaga pushed around West Virginia in a 23-point romp in the second round on Thursday. Sullinger, who watched part of the rout from behind one of the baskets, described it as a “wake-up” call.