Four games, four stories: How we came to our Final Four

1:14 PM, Mar 26, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA -- And then there were four.

That much we know. But each team left standing and on its way to New Orleans navigated its own final regional obstacle in a different way.

From The End of the Bench explains below in a collection of portraits that, when framed, form the Final Four.

Boston, Massachusetts - Individual whistles indicate infractions, but a collection of them hinder a game's flow and force situational decisions that make or break outcomes.

Ohio State's Jared Sullinger committed his second foul with 13:43 left in the first half and the Buckeyes holding a 13-10 lead. Thad Matta was forced to go to his bench, calling on Amir Williams and Sam Thompson to patchwork the final 13-plus minutes of the first half and leave Ohio State at arm's length.

The duo scrapped and clawed, pulled their weight and not only kept the Buckeyes within striking distance, but made the little plays not seen in the box score to help the Big Ten co-champs enter the locker room in a 29-29 stalemate that had to feel like a 10-point lead.

While the scoreboard was even at the half, the mindsets were worlds apart. Sullinger came out and dominated the second half, scoring 15 of his 19 points and putting the Buckeyes on his back in a 77-70 victory.

Sullinger waxed poetic after the game of his compatriots' first-half tenacity, saying, "These guys have played without me before, so they know what they have to do."

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim wasn't as verbose, stating tersely, "We got Sullinger in foul trouble early and we didn't take advantage of it. You know when he comes back in he's going to be difficult, and he was."

Boeheim's death stare and rare silence also explained his feelings of the game's officiating, which was tight on both ends and called Syracuse for 27 team fouls, the most whistled against the Orange in three years. Sullinger took advantage with aggressive post moves, getting to the foul line 12 times (he has been at the foul line a tournament-best 27 times overall).

The officiating brought two key factors to the forefront: depth and aggression. Ohio State's interior depth proved pivotal in the first half and it was their overall tenacity in attacking the Orange's 2-3 zone that proved the difference down the stretch.

Notes of note: Ohio State made 11-of-21 shots against the zone in the second half. The Buckeyes beat a No. 1 seed for the second time in school history, the first coming in the 1999 NCAA Tournament against Auburn. Boeheim fell to 1-7 all-time in the NCAA Tournament against the Big Ten. Syracuse scored 28 points in the paint on Saturday, the first time this season that the Orange lost when tallying at least 20 paint points.

Phoenix, Arizona - "Hate to do that do you, kid."

Louisville's Rick Pitino is a cold-blooded killer who has molded his Cardinals into an apt representation of himself, in-your-face and tenacious, yet after the game, he had a soft spot for Florida head coach Billy Donovan, his former pupil.

"It really hurt inside. As much as I felt like celebrating, it really hurt because he did such a masterful job of coaching," Pitino said of the Gators head coach.

The "masterful job of coaching" could have also described Pitino, who has his Cardinals playing by far their best basketball of the season with eight straight victories. He also willed his team back from an 11-point second-half deficit as Donovan looked on the way to his third Final Four.

From 63-52, Louisville stormed back to square the contest at 66-66 on Chane Behanan's jumper with just over three minutes to go. The forward then connected on the go-ahead bucket just nearly two minutes later. The Cardinals freshman scored 17 points with seven rebounds and outplayed the more heralded Gators freshman Bradley Beal, who didn't score over the final 19:50 despite posting 14 on the night.

The Gators scored just once over the final three minutes, as tired legs put a jump-shooting team in a scoring drought at the wrong time. Florida made 8- of-11 three-pointers in the first half, but missed all nine of its tries in the second half. Beal and Kenny Boynton both missed game-tying three-point attempts in the final minutes, sending the teacher on his way to the Final Four and the pupil home a game short for the second straight season.

"I said this earlier, for myself, I don't think any of us like losing," Donovan said. "But if someone said to me, 'You have to lose a game, who would it be to?' I would say him."

Notes of note: Louisville finished the game on an 18-3 run. Florida drained 7- of-10 three-point attempts when the Cardinals played zone during a stretch in the first half. The Gators made 12-of-17 field goals against the zone and 11- of-29 against Louisville's pressure man-to-man defense. Peyton Siva finished with eight assists to one turnover for the Cardinals, but fouled out with 3:58 to play. The Gators finished with 13 turnovers to just six for Louisville.

Atlanta, Georgia - Twitter was ablaze.

Five minutes into the South Regional final, almighty Kentucky was getting pushed around by a hungrier bunch of Baylor Bears, who used an eight-point sprint to claim a 10-5 lead.

Game on... for all of five minutes. The Wildcats ran off the next 16 points, built a lead that reached into the 20s and rolled to an 82-70 romp to advance to the Final Four for the second straight season.

New Orleans was where Kentucky seemed destined, and now the real season starts Saturday night against state rival Louisville. Even the players know the mission isn't close to accomplished.

"I'm not satisfied yet," Wildcats forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said.

Kentucky steamrolled through the regional with four straight double-digit victories, using its waves of interior strength, speed and talent and a resurgent backcourt to an offensive repertoire not seen in college basketball perhaps since the UNLV teams of the early 1990s.

The Wildcats shot 53 percent against the Bears, visited the free throw line 44 times and suffocated Brady Heslip. One game after the Baylor sharpshooter drained eight treys, he managed just two shots against Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and the rest of the Kentucky defenders.

Baylor head coach Scott Drew could only marvel at his opponent after the offensive onslaught. "This team is better than I thought," Drew said. "This is the best team we faced all year... probably in a couple of years."

In a natural progression of emotion, Twitter went from a shocked expression of doubt to a 140-character serenade of "One Shining Moment," and we haven't even reached New Orleans yet. That's how good Kentucky has been since November and how dominant the Wildcats were in Louisville and Atlanta.

How the story ends is entirely up to Kentucky, which will cut down the nets on the first Monday night in April if it matches its intensity and efficiency showcased over the weekend.

Notes of note: Anthony Davis, a favorite for National Player of the Year, has blocked 18 shots in this tournament. Baylor shot just 29 percent in its half- court offensive sets during the first half, its lowest percentage in a half in the last three NCAA Tournaments. How much does Davis influence interior activity? Baylor grabbed 16 offensive rebounds on Sunday, but scored just 14 second-chance points. The Bears made just 4-of-13 shots on second-chance opportunities while going up against Kentucky's big men.

St. Louis, Missouri - Triangle and two.

Kansas head coach Bill Self has answered questions about former Jayhawks (and now North Carolina) head coach Roy Williams since he took over, but perhaps he can finally step out of Williams' lengthy shadow after a masterful coaching performance down the stretch.

Kansas' 80-67 victory over the under-manned Tar Heels had a lot to do with the players who did play for the Jayhawks (Tyshawn Taylor had his best game of the tournament and Thomas Robinson was his All-American self) and the engine of the North Carolina train who didn't suit up (Kendall Marshall sat out his second straight game after breaking a bone in his right wrist against Creighton).

Yet, the final outcome may have had more to do with Self's ability to keep Robinson and Jeff Withey from fouling out earlier in the game, juggling lineups to make sure the tandem was there for the final five minutes, and his decision to employ a gimmicky Triangle-and-two defense on the Tar Heels, manning up against their two viable shooters, Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock, and zoning against Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Stilman White.

Self was willing to take the fall if Zeller or Henson consistently made 18- foot jumpers or White found his shooting stroke from long range, yet he refused to get beat by Bullock, UNC's best three-pointer shooter, or Barnes, the only Tar Heel on the floor who could create his own shot.

The tactical maneuver was brilliant, turning a tenuous 68-67 lead into an 80-67 final. North Carolina made just one field goal, a Zeller tip-in, in the final six minutes and missed its last eight shots. White was forced into two of those attempts, and an uncomfortable Henson committed a turnover above the foul line, leading to a Taylor and-one run-out that put the Jayhawks up 74-67 with just under two minutes to play.

The Tar Heels panicked, never adjusted to the defensive set and saw the deficit snowball from there. The outcome wasn't indicative of the game's competitiveness, but it surely was a sign of Self's coaching genius down the stretch in his second win in as many tries against Williams -- the man he replaced in Lawrence nine years ago.

Kansas is now on to the Final Four, and Williams and his Tar Heels are in the rearview mirror in more ways than one.

Notes of note: If there ever was a stat that showed how much the Tar Heels missed Marshall it came on transition points. Kansas outscored UNC in that department, 18-8. This wasn't the first time Kansas played the hybrid defense during this tournament. It employed the defensive look in the third-round win against Purdue. North Carolina made just 2-of-17 three-pointers, its second- worst NCAA Tournament shooting day from long range.

 

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