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 in the East Region final Saturday to advance to the Final Four in New Orleans. The second-seeded Buckeyes (31-7) will play the winner of today’s Midwest Region 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 six 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 points to go with nine rebounds for Ohio State, which led by eight points with 59 seconds left and held on after the Orange cut the deficit to three. The Buckeyes made 13 of 14 free throws in the final 68 seconds were 31 of 42 overall.
Ohio State is making its first trip to the Final Four since 2007, when it lost in the national title game to Florida. The Buckeyes lost in the region 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 February with three defeats in five games — including a home loss to Wisconsin — 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 title in 2003.
In a tightly officiated game that left Sullinger on the bench 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 was assessed a technical for objecting to a foul in the first half, and 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.
Afterward, Boeheim gave a terse “No comment” when asked if the officials hurt the flow of the game.
“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.
“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 never could regain the lead.
They trailed by eight with 59 seconds left and cut the deficit to three, but they needed the Buckeyes to miss free throws and that didn’t happen, ending a tumultuous season for Syracuse.