BOISE, Idaho — Since its second-round NCAA Tournament matchup was set, Ohio State was eager to prove it wasn’t the same team that lost to Gonzaga by 27 points in November.
On Saturday night at Taco Bell Arena, the Buckeyes made their point, and then some. And still, it wasn’t enough to punch a ticket to the Sweet 16.
After a horrendous opening few minutes when they spotted the Bulldogs a 15-0 lead, the Buckeyes rallied and led by five with six minutes to play.
No. 4 seed Gonzaga, seeking its fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance, wasn’t fazed. Zach Norvell Jr. made a three-pointer from the right corner, and the Bulldogs pulled away for a 90-84 win to snuff out what had been an improbable comeback effort from the No. 5 seed Buckeyes.
“We’re fighters,” a red-eyed Keita Bates-Diop said in the locker room. “Down 15, that doesn’t really faze us. We knew we were going to fight back. That pretty much embodies the entire year, proving people wrong — but obviously we can’t do that in the tournament, spotting a good team 15 points.”
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After leading 67-62 when Bates-Diop made a three-pointer with 6:02 to play, the Buckeyes (25-9) were outscored 28-17 to close the game. Norvell did the most damage, matching Bates-Diop with 28 points.
When the teams faced each other on Thanksgiving night, the Buckeyes trailed 33-31 with 7:48 to play in the first half. On St. Patrick’s Day, they spotted the Bulldogs (32-4) a 15-point start during which Ohio State missed its first seven shots — three of which were layups — and committed three turnovers before a Jae’Sean Tate three-pointer at 14:18 got the Buckeyes on the scoreboard.
The offense settled down, but Ohio State’s defense, which had been its hallmark, couldn’t make key stops. Trailing 30-21, Ohio State made it a seven-point game on two C.J. Jackson free throws with 5:16 left to start a stretch where the Buckeyes scored on five straight possessions but actually saw their deficit increase by one point as the Bulldogs matched them possession for possession.
After the team’s seniors delivered a halftime pep talk imploring their teammates to give a better effort, it was a different story in the second half. Ohio State opened with a Jackson three-pointer and used a 25-10 run to take its first lead of the game with 10:11 to play, setting the stage for the finish.
Bates-Diop now has a decision to make. A redshirt junior who has played his way onto NBA first-round draft boards, he said he will consult with the coaching staff, his family and former players such as Evan Turner before deciding whether to return or enter the draft.
It marked the end of the line for graduate senior Andrew Dakich, fifth-year senior Kam Williams and Tate.
“I still didn’t give up on my team,” Tate said. “We shed some tears in here because this team is special. We were supposed to be done a month ago.”
Gonzaga, which reached last year's championship game, extended the nation’s longest active win streak to 16 games. The Bulldogs will play the winner of No. 1 seed Xavier and No. 9 seed Florida State on Thursday in Los Angeles.