Playing in front of a largely hostile crowd at one of basketball’s most hallowed venues, Ohio State faced its toughest challenge of the young season.
Rather than wilt under the bright lights at Madison Square Garden in front of a national television audience, the Buckeyes rose to the occasion and defeated No. 21 Syracuse, 79-65, to advance to the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-off.
They moved on thanks to a balanced offensive attack that saw senior guard Jamar Butler connecting from outside and freshman center Kosta Koufos and senior forward Othello Hunter complementing him inside.
“Syracuse is an extremely talented team,” OSU assistant coach Alan Major told the Ohio State Basketball Radio Network. “We tried to challenge our guys a little bit. Games like this are a great test to see where we’re at. It’s a great team win.”
Koufos finished with a game-high 24 points, while Hunter added 15 points, eight rebounds and three assists against zero turnovers. Frequently operating from the elbow, Hunter served as the conduit for much of the OSU offense, directing the ball outside to the team’s shooters or down low to Koufos.
With Syracuse hanging around midway through the second half, OSU got back-to-back-to-back treys from senior Matt Terwilliger, freshman Jon Diebler and Butler to open up a 67-52 lead with 8:02 remaining in the game.
From there, the contest was all but over.
As the Orangemen attacked OSU’s 3-2 zone early, they opened up a seven-point lead thanks in large part to the play of freshman Donte Greene. Holding a 20-13 lead, Green had scored 12 of his team’s points.
But from there, the Buckeyes turned up their offense thanks to their defense. Five Syracuse turnovers helped OSU turn a seven-point deficit into a one-point lead at 23-22. The Buckeyes would eventually open up a 31-24 lead thanks to an 18-4 run that took place with sophomore swingman David Lighty on the bench with two fouls.
The run was capped by a three-point-play by Koufos. As Turner drove the basket and brought Koufos’ man closer to him, the freshman center drove the baseline, jumped and took the alley-oop pass from Turner, laying it in over his head and drawing the foul. The free throw gave Koufos 15 points in the first half.
OSU opened its largest lead of the half when Diebler connected on one of two free throws, setting what would eventually be the halftime score at 42-34.
The half ended with a combined two misses and three turnovers by the two teams. Syracuse turned the ball over 11 times in the half compared to seven for the Buckeyes.
As a team, the Buckeyes shot 48 percent from the field compared to 32 percent for Syracuse. The Orangemen were just 5 of 25 (20 percent) from beyond the arc against OSU’s zone defense and were led by Greene’s 21 points.
“They are so explosive and they have the ability to get to the paint,” Major said. “You just try to keep in front of them. In the second half we did a little better. You try to be consistent throughout the game.”
After opening the game in its patented 2-3 zone, Syracuse switched to a man-to-man defense for the remainder of the first half on OSU’s fourth possession of the game after Koufos drilled a three-pointer from the corner to make it an early 6-3 OSU lead. In contrast, the Buckeyes stuck to their 3-2 zone that was instituted prior to their season-opening contest against Wisconsin-Green Bay and used exclusively by Matta’s team since.
“We tried to be ready to go against both,” Major said. “People get so consumed with playing against Syracuse and the zone…we just tried to get ready for both because the better you can do that, the better it makes our team better.”
The Buckeyes will face Texas A&M, a team they nearly saw last season in the Sweet 16, at 7 p.m. on Friday.