Thursday, March 22, 2012 | 9:15 p.m.
Ohio 81, Cincinnati 66
BOSTON — Ohio State won the Battle of the Buckeye State and advanced to the NCAA regional finals for the first time since 2007.
Deshaun Thomas scored 26 points and Jared Sullinger had 23 points and 11 rebounds to lead second-seeded Ohio State to an 81-66 victory over No. 6 seed Cincinnati on Thursday night.
Aaron Craft added 11 points — all in the second half — with five assists and six steals, taking charge during a 17-1 second-half run that turned a four-point deficit into a double-digit lead.
Cashmere Wright scored 18 and Sean Kilpatrick had 15 for the Bearcats, who were attempting to match Big East rival Syracuse by beating a Big Ten opponent to advance to the East Regional finals. The top-seeded Orange advanced earlier Thursday at the TD Garden by beating fourth-seeded Wisconsin 64-63.
It's the first trip to the regional finals for Ohio State (30-7) since it lost in the 2007 championship game to Florida.
The state of Ohio placed four teams in the round of 16, and the Buckeyes are the first to advance. Ohio plays North Carolina and Xavier plays Baylor on Friday.
Despite just about 100 miles separating their campuses along I-71, Ohio State and Cincinnati had played just once since the 1962 national championship game.
This one was evenly matched — for about 30 minutes.
Wearing Day-Glo orange shoelaces and piping on their jerseys, Cincinnati (26-11) fell behind by 12 at the half before going on a 19-4 run early in the second. It was ahead 52-48 with 11:34 to play when Ohio State took over, allowing just one free throw over the next 5 1/2 minutes.
That effectively ended the season for Cincinnati, which fought its way back into prominence after a Dec. 10 brawl with crosstown rival Xavier.
The Musketeers, who were unbeaten and No. 8 in the nation at the time, lost their top three scorers and then five of their next six games. But Cincinnati, which fell to 5-3 with the 23-point loss at Xavier, won 10 of its next 11 games despite using a four-guard offense made necessary by the six-game suspensions of Yancy Gates and center Cheikh Mbodj.
The Bearcats reached the final of the Big East tournament and beat Texas and Florida State in the NCAAs to reach the regional semifinals for the first time since 2001.
Ohio State, which lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game, reached the round of 16 by beating 15th-seeded Loyola of Maryland and No. 7 seed Gonzaga.
The Buckeyes led Cincinnati by five when Thomas hit back-to-back 3-pointers and Ohio State scored 10 of the last 13 points in the half to open a 37-25 lead. But Cincinnati opened the second half with a run of its own, tying it 41-all on JaQuon Parker's baby hook shot in the lane.
The Bearcats led 52-48 on Gates' three-point play with 11:34 left. But Ohio State went on a 17-1 run to turn the four-point deficit into a 12-point lead.
Florida 68, Marquette 58
PHOENIX — Almost every time he touches the ball, Bradley Beal does something special. His latest bit of basketball wizardry pushed Florida a win away from the Final Four and set up Billy Donovan with a perfectly scripted matchup against his old coach and boss, Rick Pitino.
Beal, the freshman with NBA written all over him, scored 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting Thursday night to help the Gators to a 68-58 victory over Marquette.
Next up for No. 7 Florida (26-10) — a West Regional final Saturday against Louisville and Pitino, who taught ol' Billy The Kid a lot of what he knows.
Lesson No. 1 on any coach's list, of course, would be to get good players. On this night, Beal was the best on the court. He also had six rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots, including one on Marquette's Jae Crowder while the third-seeded Golden Eagles (27-8) were desperately trying to claw back in after trailing by 14.
Crowder, a senior and the Big East player of the year, never found his touch. He finished with 15 points on 5-for-15 shooting while another Marquette senior, Darius Johnson-Odom also went 5 for 15 in a struggle to reach 14 points. Buzz Williams' team shot 31 percent and was held 18 points under its season average.
Erving Walker had 11 for the Gators, including a 3-pointer that came after Patric Young scrapped for an offensive rebound with 2:05 left. It snapped a 6-0 Marquette run that pulled the third-seeded Golden Eagles (27-8) to within six.
But the biggest difference maker was Beal, a high school national player of the year whom Donovan has been pushing to be more assertive.
In the second half, he gave about five perfect examples of what he can do when he steps up a bit. Blanketed by Marquette's Todd Mayo, Beal hesitated, took a stutter step, then breezed past him for a reverse layup that would've made George Gervin proud.
It was the second time he'd blown past Mayo for a layup. He also had a 3-pointer, a couple of free throws and a pretty assist to Young to help the Gators go up 56-44 with less than five minutes left. For cappers — he dunked for the last points of the game, leaving him one short of the high-water scoring mark of his one-year — one-and-done? — college career.