No. 16 Ohio State knew what it was in for when facing Syracuse: a 2-3 zone defense, a staple for Jim Boeheim, who is in his 43rd season as the head coach of the Orange.
Syracuse knew what the zone was going to make Ohio State do: forcing them to shoot over the zone defense instead of driving to the paint, having sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson use his size to outmatch opponents.
This was what Syracuse forced Ohio State to do.
It worked, with No. 16 Ohio State (6-1) suffering its first loss of the season, falling to Syracuse (4-2) 72-62 on Wednesday night.
Wesson struggled mightily in the paint for the Buckeyes. The sophomore connected on one of eight shot attempts from the floor, getting second chance opportunities with five offensive boards, but finding little success offensively, overpowered by the three big Orange forwards in the middle. He ended the game with 13 points, connecting on 11 of 14 from the charity stripe.
Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said Wesson’s performance was a learning experience for the sophomore, overcoming his inability to finish on Tuesday, something the head coach said he had been working on.
“I doubt he’s had, maybe no one-for-eight nights in his career even dating back to high school I would think,” Holtmann said. “I think he did a really good job in the high post passing the ball and I thought he got the ball around the rim and the teammates got the ball to him in good spaces. He created a lot of fouls. But his finishing in traffic is something we have been working with him on and we just need to continue to work with him on it.”
Redshirt junior Elijah Hughes secured the victory for the Orange, scoring six consecutive points, leading Syracuse on a 11-0 run. During this span, the Buckeyes went more than seven minutes without a field goal.
Even with a mini 5-point run by the Buckeyes near the end of the second half, highlighted by a 3-point make by redshirt senior guard Keyshawn Woods, Ohio State could not come back from the deficit, shooting 27.3 percent from the field in the second half while making two of eight from deep.
Syracuse sophomore guard Tyus Battle, sophomore Oshae Brissett and Hughes combined for 32 points in the second half, as the Orange made five of 11 from 3-point range in the second half, leading to the 10-point loss for Ohio State.
“We were kind of just playing to play,” Jackson said. “We weren’t playing to win, not playing how we should play. We weren’t that tougher team we have to be night in and night out. We are not very good when we aren’t that team.”
The Orange also used physicality in its win against the Buckeyes, with three Orange players, sophomore forward Marek Dolezaj, senior guard Frank Howard and freshman forward Bourama Sidibe fouling out.
Physicality was one of many aspects Jackson and Ohio State were expecting from the Orange in this game.
“Probably not more than I expected. We knew it was going to be a grimy game, a slow game, slow paced game,” Jackson said. “We knew they were a physical team and they kind of just want to keep you in front and we knew they box out hard.”
Ohio State, early on, seemed to have figured out the zone.
Senior guard C.J. Jackson found sophomore forward Kyle Young for an alley-oop. This helped ignite the Buckeye offense, beginning the game on a 9-2 run and making their first four attempts from the field.
Holtmann knew that a hot start would not be the one that defines the overall success of his team against a team like Syracuse.
“I don’t think you ever feel like you have the game where you want it until it’s really out of hand and I never really felt that at this point and I don’t think our players did either,” Holtmann said. “They recognized it was going to be a long game and there was going to be some ebbs and flows to it.”
The Orange solidified its defense as the first half continued and, after junior forward Andre Wesson hit a jumper with 12:58 to go, Ohio State failed to make a shot for the next six minutes. During this span, Syracuse went on a 9-2 run, tying the game at 18 after a 3 from Dolezaj.
Ohio State and Syracuse continued to trade shots as the half came to a close, as the Orange continue to force the Buckeyes out of the paint, connecting on four of 12 from 3 in the first half. Jackson was the only player to make two 3’s in the half, leading the team with 11 points.
Late in the half, Syracuse’s 2-3 zone was matched on the other end of the court with head coach Chris Holtmann’s man defense, as Ohio State continued to switch and guard the Orange offense, forcing a shot-clock violation with 98 seconds left in the first half.
After Jackson hit four free throws and Battle hit a layup, Ohio State went to the locker room with a 31-29 lead.
Ohio State continued to struggle against the zone early in the second half and Syracuse took advantage, starting on a 10-2 run, taking a 39-32 lead.
Woods tried to change the tide for the Ohio State offense. He hit a 3, bringing the Buckeyes to within two, with Young hitting a layup to tie the game at 41 with 14 minutes left.
But the Orange continued to score, shooting 45.5 percent from the field in the second half.
Luther Muhammad left the game with 66 seconds remaining after a hard fall guarding Battle on a layup. After the game Holtmann said he had suffered a shoulder dislocation and he was being evaluated.
After the first loss of the season, Holtmann said Ohio State knows it will have to respond heading into Big Ten play on Sunday.
“Our team knows we have to get better,” Holtmann said. “I don’t think they think anything other than that. I think we got beat by a better team tonight and we just, we need to play better, we need to coach better and we will learn from it and move on.”
Ohio State stays at home to take on Minnesota at 7 p.m. on Sunday.