BOSTON — Ohio State coach Thad Matta sized up his team in the middle of the season and had it figured for an early loss when the NCAA tournament came around.
The final weekend of March Madness is next, and the Buckeyes will be there.
Jared Sullinger recovered from first-half foul trouble to score 19 points and grab seven rebounds, helping Ohio State beat top-seeded Syracuse 77-70 on Saturday to advance to the Final Four in New Orleans. The second-seeded Buckeyes will play the winner of Sunday's Midwest Regional final between North Carolina and Kansas.
"We're not going down to New Orleans for a vacation. It's a business trip," said Sullinger, who picked up his second foul 6 minutes into the game and did not return the rest of the half. "These guys have played without me before, so they know what they have to do."
Deshaun Thomas scored 14 with nine rebounds for Ohio State (31-7), which led by eight points with 59 seconds to play and held on after the Orange cut it to three. The Buckeyes made 13 of 14 free throws in the final 68 seconds and 31 of 42 from the line in all.
Ohio State is making its first trip to the Final Four since 2007, when it lost in the national championship game to Florida. They had lost in the regional semifinals in each of the past two seasons, and Matta wasn't even sure they would make it that far after a series of unimpressive practices.
When the Buckeyes, who spent five weeks as the No. 2 team in the nation, closed out February with three defeats in five games – including a home loss to Wisconsin on Feb. 26 – Matta had more reason to worry.
But he got the response he was hoping for.
"That loss opened their eyes and said, `Hey, maybe we're not as good as we think we are,'" Matta said. "Maybe it got us pointed in the right direction."
Brandon Triche scored 15 points and Baye Keita had 10 rebounds for Syracuse (34-3). The Orange were hoping for a return trip to New Orleans, where they won their only national championship in 2003.
In a tightly officiated game that left Sullinger on the bench in foul trouble for most of the first half and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim not-quite muzzled after picking up a technical foul, it came down to free throws. Syracuse was called for 29 fouls – its most in more than three years – despite playing its usual 2-3 zone.
Boeheim didn't like several of them.
He picked up a technical for objecting to a foul in the first half, and he escaped another in the second half despite shouting his profane complaint across the court. At one point, he turned to Jeff Hathaway, the chairman of the NCAA selection committee who was sitting near the Syracuse bench, and made his case in person.
Afterward, Boeheim gave a terse "No comment" when asked if the officials hurt the flow of the game. A statement from the officiating crew chief said Boeheim was given a technical for being out of the coaching box and gesturing about a call.
"We're not going to blame it on the refs," said guard Scoop Jardine, who had 14 points and six assists. "I think we had a chance to win the game no matter what, with the refs or without them giving us any calls."
The Orange went to the line 25 times, making 20 foul shots.
The frequent whistles left both teams struggling to get into a groove in the first half – there were only four baskets in the last 9:30. That seemed to be good news for Ohio State, which managed to stay with the No. 1 seed despite getting only 6 minutes from Sullinger, the star of the Buckeyes' East Regional semifinal win over Cincinnati.
"We got Sullinger in foul trouble early and we didn't take advantage of it," Boeheim said. "You know when he comes back in he's going to be difficult, and he was."
Syracuse was already without 7-footer Fab Melo, who missed the tournament with academic issues, and replacement Rakeem Christmas picked up two quick fouls early in the second half to leave him with four.
Ohio State opened a 46-36 lead with under 14 minutes to play. Syracuse scored eight of the next nine points to make it a one-point game, but the Orange could never get back in the lead.
They trailed by eight with 59 seconds left and cut it to three, but they needed the Buckeyes to miss free throws, and that didn't happen.
The loss ended a tumultuous season for Syracuse that began with accusations by two former ball boys that they were sexually abused in the 1980s by Bernie Fine, a longtime Syracuse assistant coach. Boeheim vigorously defended him, but later walked back his support in the face of new information. Fine, who was fired Nov. 27, has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing.
The school also revealed this month that it had self-reported possible violations of its internal drug policy by members of previous teams; the NCAA is investigating.
But the biggest hit might have been the loss of Melo, Syracuse's leading rebounder who also averaged 5.8 points per game. Even without him, the Orange beat North Carolina-Asheville and Kansas State to earn a trip to Boston, then survived a pair of potential game-winners to beat Wisconsin 64-63 on Thursday and advance to the regional final.
Ohio State reached the round of eight by beating Loyola of Maryland and then Gonzaga before winning a Battle of the Buckeye State against Cincinnati in Boston on Thursday night. The Buckeyes were one of four teams from Ohio in the round of 16, and the only ones to make it to the regional finals.
Ohio State is also the last remaining team from the Big Ten, which placed six teams in the NCAA tournament and four in the round of 16.