Syracuse’s zone defense was befuddling, and outstanding perimeter shooting in the second half was too much…and enough to hand Ohio State its first loss of the season.
Columbus – On an evening when former coach Thad Matta had a banner put up in the rafters in his honor in The Schott, his old basketball team found out just why Syracuse has put up yet another banner in its building.
Ohio State ripped off six straight victories to start the season, including an opening win at Cincinnati and another at Creighton, but the Orange was another story altogether in an ACC-Big Ten Challenge game on Wednesday.
Syracuse came in smarting from losses to Connecticut and Oregon in the 2K Empire Classic in New York and had hall of fame coach Jim Boeheim wondering aloud about what was going on.
But the remnants of a bunch that got to the NCAA tournament round of 16 last season discovered its knockout punch in wrestling Ohio State to the floor in a 72-62 victory before 16,962.
Matta, who won 337 games and five Big Ten championships and got the team to two Final Fours, was honored at halftime since being fired two years ago.
There isn’t much time for the Buckeyes to regroup. The Big Ten opener is against Minnesota at 2 p.m. Sunday at Value City Arena.
The availability of freshman guard Luther Muhammad is in question. He suffered a dislocated shoulder in the final minutes.
“We have to get better fast,’’ senior captain and point guard C.J. Jackson said.
Tyus Battle had 20 points, Elijah Hughes 18 and Oshae Brissett 14 in leading a magnificent offensive show for the Orange. The team was 22 of 45 overall for 48.9 percent and 11 of 24 behind the three-point line for 45.8 percent.
This was a team that had been shooting 23 percent from three-point range, and that included 2-for-20 against Oregon.
“This is the first time this year I’ve seen us play the way we needed to play,’’ Boeheim said. “We hadn’t been playing well, we hadn’t shot well and we hadn’t defended well.’’
As for the treys, he said the only difference was the ball went through the rim this time.
Another difference was the Orange (4-2) had point guard Frank Howard on two good ankles for the first time this season. He missed the first four games and played 19 minutes against Colgate eight days ago.
It was the Syracuse 2-3 zone defense that came up big last night. Simply put, Ohio State couldn’t finish in going 15-for-46, including 6-for-22 from three.
Above all, second-year Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann was disappointed most about the intensity of his defense.
“Give Syracuse credit. I thought they played well, made shots and made it difficult for us to score certainly around the rim,’’ he said. “I felt good about our looks and getting to the line. The most disappointing thing was our defensive effort. I just didn’t love our defensive effort tonight. We’ve got to get better.’’
Jackson said shooting wasn’t the root of the problem. It was the defense, or lack of it.
“We were just kind of playing to play – we weren’t playing to win,’’ he said. “We weren’t the tougher team that we have to be night in and night out. We’re not very good when we’re not that team. I think they shot, what, (55 percent) in the second half or something like that, and we’re not going to win many games like that.’’
Sophomore forward Kyle Young said the players weren’t tough enough defensively to defeat a team that plays like street fighting men.
“We need to have that (tough) identity every night, especially on the defensive end,’’ he said.
Jackson said Syracuse showed nothing new and just took it to the Buckeyes at both ends of the court.
“We knew it was going to a grimy game, a slow game, a slow-paced game,’’ he said. “They are very physical team and they want to keep you in front. We knew they boxed out hard. It wasn’t any more physical than we thought. They just played a lot more physical than we did.’’
When the Buckeyes did get the ball over the top inside, 6-foot-9 center Kaleb Wesson was smothered in going 1-for-8.
The early going was outstanding for Ohio State as it took a 14-7 lead on a drive by Andre Wesson with 14:31 left in the first half.
Syracuse went on an 11-2 run to lead for the first time, 18-16, on a three-pointer by Marek Dolezaj.
The Buckeyes were in good shape leading 31-29 at halftime, but the Orange came out red hot in the second half to lead 41-36 with 15:33 left. What turned out to be Ohio State’s last stand came when Young hit a layup off a slick pass from Muhammad along the baseline to make it 41 all.
That’s when Syracuse kidney-punched with defense to score13 of the next 15 points to lead 54-45 on a three by Battle.
What the Orange did was spread the floor and had the guards and wings play one-on-one. The team’s length – the players in the rotation range from 6 feet 6 to 7-2 – was a factor.
“It was a heavy space isolation with their best players and allowing those guys to go to work on your guys,’’ Holtmann said. “You have to be able to stop that or they are just going to keep doing that. They have some really talented wings who can go to the bucket. We needed to make it harder on them than we did.’’
Two free throws by Jackson cut the deficit to 64-58 with 2:56 to go, but Young was blocked by 7-2 center Paschal Chukwu with approximately two minutes remaining and Keyshawn Woods missed an open three just inside 1 ½ minutes left.
Holtmann said Chukwu should have been called for goaltending.
“The ball did hit the glass first,’’ he said. “It wasn’t called. It was a bang-bang play.’’
“It is what it is now,’’ he said. “It wasn’t called, but it looked like it was up on the glass.’’