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 today’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.
When the Buckeyes, who spent five weeks as the No. 2 team in the nation, closed out February with three defeats in five games Matta had 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.
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.