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 (34-3) 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.”