NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Jared Sullinger watched the final seconds tick off, pulled his jersey over his head and half stumbled toward the sideline.
The dream of a national championship, the reason he returned to Ohio State, was out of reach and it was hard for the big fella to take.
Dominant early, Sullinger struggled in the second half against Kansas’ long front line, hitting 5 of 19 shots in the Buckeyes’ 64-62 loss in the Final Four Saturday night.
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“Right now, I’m kind of speechless with the situation that just went about,” Sullinger said with tears filling his eyes.
Sullinger didn’t play when Kansas beat Ohio State 78-67 on Dec. 10 because of back spasms.
With the hefty power forward back in the lineup, the Buckeyes were supposed to have the upper hand inside.
Instead, Jayhawks center Jeff Withey harassed Sullinger throughout the second half as Kansas rallied from a 13-point deficit to earn a spot in Monday night’s national title game against top-seeded Kentucky.
Sullinger, who finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds, now has to decide if he wants to come back to the Buckeyes again or head to the NBA.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Sullinger said of his plans. “It’s something I’ll take up with Coach and talk over with my family. I really don’t know what the decision will be yet.”
Either way, this wasn’t the way he hoped the season would end.
Sullinger was expected to bolt from Ohio State after being selected first-team All-America as a freshman. Big, agile and with good hands, he was projected as an NBA lottery pick, so the assumption was that he was gone.
Sullinger surprised nearly everyone by deciding to return, saying he wanted a shot at a national title after the Buckeyes were bounced early from the NCAA tournament as the top overall seed last year.
Sullinger did his part in putting the Buckeyes (31-8) in position, earning All-America honors for the second straight season while leading them into the Final Four.
He had been dominant at times in the NCAA tournament and was good early against the Jayhawks, using his big backside to create space down low. With Sullinger leading the way, the Buckeyes bullied fellow No. 2 seed Kansas inside early, building a 26-13 lead that was still nine points by halftime.
Things quickly changed in the second half.
With Thomas Robinson asserting himself more offensively and Sullinger struggling against Withey’s reach, Kansas (32-6) stormed back, using a 13-4 run to tie the game at 49-all.
Sullinger tried to push back, but had a hard time finding any room to maneuver inside. He had three shots blocked by Withey in about a minute and had to alter several others around and over the 7-footer’s long arms.
“He was just playing hard, seemed like he stepped up his defensive intensity,” Sullinger said of Withey, who had five of his seven blocked shots in the second half. “We had a chance to control the game, but we didn’t.”
Things got even tougher for Sullinger when teammate Deshaun Thomas went out with his fourth foul.
Ohio State’s game plan for attacking Kansas’ length inside revolved around Thomas.
The Buckeyes’ leading scorer in the NCAA tournament, he can score in a variety of ways and is a good shooter from the perimeter.
When he was in the game, the Jayhawks weren’t able to collapse on and help on Sullinger.
Once Thomas went out, Kansas was able to surround Ohio State’s best player, surprising him with double teams that he couldn’t seem to escape.
“When Deshaun wasn’t in there, they were able to sit guys on him,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “We needed a stretcher out there at that position. That just enabled them. It forced our hand a little bit.”
The Buckeyes still had a shot, but they couldn’t get the shots to fall.
Sullinger had two points over the final 6 minutes and Thomas wasn’t much help after he returned, scoring nine points on 3-of-14 shooting.
So instead of moving on to play in the national championship game, Sullinger was left to shuffle off the court and wonder what might have been in his final game at Ohio State.
“Me shooting 5 for 19, that’s not a normal shooting day for me, but sometimes it happens, the ball rolls that way,” Sullinger said. “We still had a chance to win this game, we just didn’t execute.”