Ohio State coach Thad Matta sized up his team in the middle of the season and had it figured for a first-weekend loss when the NCAA Tournament came around.
He’s never been so happy to be wrong.
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.
The second-seeded Buckeyes will play the winner of Sunday's Midwest Regional final between Kansas and North Carolina.
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.
Ohio State made 13 of 14 free throws in the final 68 seconds and 31 of 42 from the line in all.
The Buckeyes are making their first trip to the Final Four since 2007, when they lost in the national championship game to Florida.
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 by taking down Kansas in the title game.
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.
As for their own free throws, 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.
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.
But Syracuse scored eight of the next nine points to make it a one-point game. The Orange, though, 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 earlier this month that it had self-reported possible violations of its internal drug policy by members of previous teams, and 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 then Kansas State to earn a trip to Boston.
Syracuse 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.