The Buckeyes broke open a tie game with nine straight points down the stretch and beat top-seeded Auburn 72-64 Thursday night in the South Regional semifinals.
"This just keeps hitting me right between the eyes," said Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien, whose Buckeyes struggled to an 8-22 record last season.
Ohio State (26-8) advanced to Saturday's regional final against St. John's, which defeated Maryland 76-62 in the other semifinal.
Brian Brown's free throw broke a 61-61 tie with 2:41 left and Ohio State opened a 70-61 lead before Auburn's Doc Robinson banked in a meaningless 3-pointer with 6.5 seconds left.
The Buckeyes' success is no surprise to Scoonie Penn, the guard who followed O'Brien to Ohio State from Boston College. He predicted last fall that the Buckeyes would turn it around and make the the NCAA tournament this season.
"Look at us now. I'm sure they will believe me now," said Penn, who scored 19 of his 26 points in the second half despite playing with four fouls the final 10 minutes.
Auburn (29-4), which hadn't been to the round of 16 since 1986, became the first No. 1 seed to fall in this year's tournament thanks to some cold shooting down the stretch. The Southeastern Conference's highest-scoring team missed seven straight shots after Scott Pohlman's 3-pointer tied the game at 61.
Neither team could grab the momentum in a game where they swapped the lead 17 times.
Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said his Tigers had their chances with three minutes left.
"Penn and (Michael) Redd came on and took hem over the hump," Ellis said.
After Brown started the 9-0 run with his free throw, Redd added two foul shots, Penn made a basket, Brown stole the ball from Bryant Smith and fed it to Jason Singleton for a dunk, and Singleton added free throws to put Ohio State up 70-61.
"We went into the game knowing Ohio State was a very good team. You see why they have had such success," Ellis said. "Scoonie Penn hit big shots. They were huge when they came. He and Redd are tremendous basketball players."
The victory put Ohio State in its first regional final since 1992, when the Buckeyes lost to Michigan.
Redd added 22 points and 10 rebounds for the Buckeyes.
Chris Porter, the SEC's player of the year, led Auburn with 15 points but fouled out with 1:57 remaining. Robinson finished with 14, and Smith had 10.
Ohio State led for nearly the first eight minutes of the second half until Auburn went on an 11-2 run started by Pohlman, who finished with only seven points after scoring a career-high 28 in the Tigers' second-round victory over Oklahoma State.
The spurt put Auburn up 52-46 with 10:17 remaining, but the Tigers couldn't hold onto that edge. Auburn wound up with 18 turnovers, and Ohio State converted them into 17 points. The Buckeyes took good care of the ball and lost it only nine times.
Penn, the Big Ten's player of the year, went to the bench with his fourth foul with 13:23 left. He came back and pulled Ohio State within 52-51 with a 3-pointer and a baseline drive. Neither team led by more than three until Ohio State's late run.
Ohio State, which held its first two opponents in the tournament to just 28 percent shooting, continued its stingy defense against Auburn in the first half, when the Tigers were 8-for-29.
Redd set the tone for the night on the Buckeyes' opening possession. He calmly took a pass with the shot clock winding down and hit a 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded.
But Ohio State couldn't shake the Tigers, who set a school record for victories this season.
The teams swapped the lead back and forth before Penn hit a long 3-pointer with 18.5 seconds left to give Ohio State a 31-26 halftime lead.
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