There was plenty of emotion at Value City Arena on Wednesday night. Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann would later lament that it wasn’t focused on the defensive end as the No. 16 Buckeyes unsuccessfully tried to slow Syracuse in taking their first loss of the season, but it came out at halftime with both teams in their locker rooms. 

In what was apparently a surprise to the man himself, former coach Thad Matta, who was fired from the program not even 18 months ago, saw his name immortalized in the rafters at the arena he called home for 13 seasons. The official plans for the day were kept largely under wraps, Matta would later tell reporters, but in an emotional speed at center court he had to hug his family while choking back tears as he reflected on what the event meant to him. 

The humor was there. Matta thanked the doctors who tended to his damaged back including former trainer Vince O’Brien, “because later on in my career I was spending more time in the training room than, well I won’t name the player, but you all know who I’m talking about.” 

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 And then things got a little dusty. Gazing up at the banner, hung next to one for Evan Turner, Matta started to falter.

 “Barbara and I gave every player that played for us a cross after their time, because we wanted them to know that we were with them and God was with them as they went into the real world,” he said, and the crowd applauded as he steadied himself. “It’s my only hope that every time one of my former players comes in here, and they look up there…”

By now, the tears were coming.

“They smile,” he concluded, before thanking his wife and daughters.

Once the public festivities were over, Matta headed to the postgame interview room he visited so many times during his career. He fielded questions on everything from his favorite memories to why he didn’t take the Georgia job last spring to whether he’ll get back into coaching.

But where is he with Ohio State, so soon after being so abruptly let go?

“I am completely at peace,” he said. “Gene (Smith) still remains one of the best friends I have in life. I completely understand the nature of the business and completely respect what has to be done. If things weren’t going well right now, maybe I’d have a (grudge), but this thing is rolling right now.”

And yes, he was surprised that the Buckeyes wanted to do this so soon after his tenure ended.

“The one thing I said to myself was, usually they do this when a guy’s dead,” he said. “At least I got to see it. I was excited from that standpoint. I think the transition has been so smooth and Chris is doing not just the coaching, but running the program and the things we tried to do here in terms of bringing back the former players. What he’s done in that regard is second to none. Everything that he’s doing here, I could not be happier.”

The Buckeyes obviously didn’t get to see the festivities as they prepared for the second half. Only three players remain who were coached by Matta, and senior C.J. Jackson is among them. He posted a message to Twitter after the game.

Honored to have played for Coach Matta just want to say Thank You .

— Cj (@C_Jack13) November 29, 2018

“In my office at my new house, I’ve just got pictures up,” said Matta, who has moved to Indianapolis. “When you’re coaching, you don’t have the opportunity to ever stop and smell the roses because it’s always onto the next thing. Knock on wood, I wake up every morning and say something has to go wrong because I feel too good. I told my wife the other night, I’m not going to apologize to people for being happy. I feel really good. Blessed to do what I did. One of the biggest things is continuing to try to get right (physically).”

Toughness missing

As for the game itself, Ohio State’s bid for an undefeated season came to an end as Syracuse shot 54.5 percent during the second half, 45.8 percent from three for the game and kept the Buckeyes at arm’s length for much of the night after halftime.

There was a common theme in Holtmann’s postgame comments. Namely, that the Buckeyes did not play with the necessary toughness on the defensive end to come away with a win against a good Syracuse team that was clearly the most talented team on the schedule to this point.

What didn’t he like about his team’s defensive intensity?

“I just think in general top to bottom,” he said. “I think our defensive rebounding was OK. We just weren’t as active as we needed to be and I take responsibility for that. We have to be way more active than we were, just way more active. We need to make it harder on them than we did.”

Sophomore Kyle Young and Jackson, the two players brought in for postgame interviews before Holtmann’s press conference brought up the same topic.

Asked if Ohio State brought enough defensive effort, Jackson said, “Definitely not. We were just playing to play. We weren’t playing to win like we should play. We weren’t the tougher team that we have to be night-in and night-out. We’re not very good when we aren’t that team. We’re not going to win many games when they shoot like that (in the second half).”

Nothing was off in the days of practice leading into the game, Holtmann said, that would have indicated that a defensive letdown was in the offing. Jackson said Syracuse lived up to what he had seen on film and that the game was as physical as he had expected.

“We know it was going to be a grind-me game, a slow-paced game,” he said. “We knew they were a physical team. They want to keep you in front. We knew they box out hard. It wasn’t any more physical than I thought. They just played a lot tougher than we did.”

Ohio State has faced adversity at other points throughout the season and found ways to rally. At Cincinnati in the opener, the Buckeyes led for nearly the entire game but had their 16-point lead whittled to a one-possession game before Jackson made some key late baskets for a win. At Creighton two games later, the Bluejays led 60-56 before Ohio State closed the game on a 13-0 run.

Tonight was different.

“I do think that you’re always interested in evaluating your team, how we handle adversity in the midst of the game and how do we handle it in the midst of a season?” Holtmann said. “It’s coming our way. We’re going to experience a lot of it this year, I think. I’m interested to see how this group, you’ve asked me about my biggest question, it’s the leadership in that moment. How are we going to respond? Time will tell for us all.”

Goaltend?

The Buckeyes did gather some momentum late. Syracuse pushed its lead to 12 points at 54-52, but Jackson hit a pair of free throws with 4:27 left to start a mini, 6-0 run that made it 64-58 when he hit two more with 2:56 to play.

Then, after a three-point miss from Oshae Brissett, the Buckeyes got the ball to Young on the block. His shot attempt was officially credited as a block by Paschal Chukwu, but that didn’t appear to be the correct call.

To put it bluntly.

“Goaltend,” Holtmann said. “Yeah. Goaltend.”

The coach was then asked how much that sucked the momentum out of the run.

“You mean the fact that it was a goaltend that wasn’t called?” he said. “It was significant. A four-point game with two minutes to go? I’m not saying we would’ve won the game or lost the game, but the ball did hit the glass first. It’s a bang-bang call. It’s a tough call in that situation because of how quickly it happens, but we were making a little bit of a run there but you’ve got to be tough enough to respond to that.”

Ohio State would force a three-point miss from Elijah Hughes, but Keyshawn Woods missed a three-pointer himself and time was running out.

Young was diplomatic about the non-call.

“It is what it is now,” he said. “It wasn’t a call, but it looked like it was up on the glass from where I was. I don’t know if you guys could see it, but yeah.”

Quotable

“I always said this when I worked here: I don’t know what they do to the students and the fans when they’re here, but they inject something in them. I found myself rooting so hard last Saturday for Ohio State in the Michigan game and we don’t miss games. Basketball is a little bit different. I didn’t get to see those guys as much as I wanted to last year. We had a great run here and I said this this summer, when you’re coaching you remember the losses. When you’re not coaching, you remember the wins.” – Matta

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy