BOSTON – Ohio State Coach Thad Matta sized up his team in the middle of the season and had it figured for an early loss in the NCAA tournament.

The final weekend of March Madness is next, and the Buckeyes will be there.

Jared Sullinger recovered from first-half foul trouble Saturday night to score 19 points and grab seven rebounds, helping Ohio State beat top-seeded Syracuse 77-70 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 six minutes into the game and didn’t 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 left and held on after the Orange cut it to three. The Buckeyes made 13 of 14 free throws in the final 1:08 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 final to Florida. It lost in the regional semifinals 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 sought.

“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 title 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 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. 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.

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 six minutes from Sullinger.

“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.”