23 years in Division-I, with a competitive effort last year against Syracuse in hand, the high stakes for Syracuse against their formidable opponent to the west still felt unsubstantiated.
The game carried the weight of the Orange being favorites, while also pursuing a marquee win over the #14 team in the nation and trying to reclaim the name of best team in New York. It never felt like they relinquished it outright, but on Tuesday they officially did so as Buffalo handed Syracuse a 71-59 loss.
Despite their spotless record entering the Carrier Dome, the Bulls worked to dismantle it early. They launched threes that bounced far off the rim, feeding a starving Syracuse offense with a dose of transition action. Jeremy Harris (18 points) launched a three that landed in Brissett’s hands amongst a mass of bodies before half, which he fired to Frank Howard in transition to set up a last-second step-back three.
Buffalo instead flexed their 67.4 point per game defense. Davonta Jordan tagged Tyus Battle with an early foul possessions into the game, popping up after the call pounding his chest. Jordan later completely froze Elijah Hughes in the same location on an isolation attempt, forcing him to reluctantly dish to the corner.
Syracuse established a 6-2 lead behind Battle and Howard, while the Bulls missed their first five three attempts. Then Buffalo broke into the interior, working the ball inside and out, sending Hughes into the ceiling on a few up fakes and into a charge foul while he tried to push the pace. CJ Massinburg opened the outside attack on the left wing — scoring 25 points on 8-of-16 — to respond to a Battle feed inside to Bourama Sidibe for a three-point play.
The Orange led 11-9 when Brissett — 5-for-12, 10 points — hit a jumper and drove inside for three more with the foul. When Battle broke the perimeter defense on the next possession, and swung his right arm back for a flush. SU built its biggest lead of the half at 20-11.
Buffalo stuck around behind the emergence of a slashing and passing effort from Harris, weaving through the openings inside the zone. He drew Marek Dolezaj in for a double team near the block, before sending him up top to foul Massinburg on his three-point conversion.
The Bulls rallied within six, rebounding eight of their first 18 misses — 18 total in the game — but making little of the second chances. Their door opened through turnovers, as Battle tried to pass in midair then rushed out of control on a transition run. Midway through the half Nick Perkins — 10 points, 12 rebounds — attacked Syracuse’s centers with hesitation moves, hitting a three between two jumpers by Hughes, who scored 16 on 6-of-15.
Hughes’ run went dry after Howard passed out of a mismatch against Perkins into another isolation set, then Harris stuck a three to get the Bulls within 24-22.
Jalen Carey checked in to catch a rare jumper attempt by Paschal Chukwu and fed Hughes into a pair of free throws. He finished a lefty layup possession later to pace Syracuse ahead of two makes by Perkins over Chukwu and Sidibe.
Brissett took the ball in the high post and got swarmed, sending Harris running the other way for a layup and one-point deficit. Brissett made up for it on a corner three attempt by Hughes, grabbing the miss and feeding him on the baseline into two more free throws.
Howard followed two Perkins free throws with a jumper, before his step-back three on the left wing closed the half with Syracuse ahead 36-32.
He opened the second half forcing the issue to Chukwu inside, setting him up with a dunk on the roll. The next possession ended with Chukwu surprised at the ball returning his way, stutter stepping into a travel.
Harris and Jordan carried the Bulls back with a layup and three. Harris sent Hughes to the floor in transition with a steal at the rim. Then he’d put the Bulls ahead on a deep three at the top of the arc past the 12 minute break, but first Hughes poured in a pair of threes and two more at the free throw line.
Massinburg made two of three at the line following a foul and cut to the basket, as Jordan slid a pass by Chukwu from underneath the basket for a cutting layup. Montell McRae hit one of the deep bombs that hadn’t been falling for Buffalo and lowered the margin for error to 48-47 for Syracuse.
Buffalo lost slight momentum when Battle cut off Caruthers with a two-handed block at the rim, but the Bulls garnered a bigger rush off of Perkins’ stop of Brissett at the rim following his words with Sidibe.
Harris splashed a three, Massinburg followed, and the Bulls took a 53-50 lead — their first of the second half. They would not sacrifice it again.
Brissett hit a jumper, but Howard couldn’t land his floater. Battle managed to foul out Caruthers on a jumper attempt, but Perkins took the strange hold on the game. He shoved Dolezaj out of the way on a fight for a rebound, drawing a foul, but Dolezaj rimmed out, leaving Buffalo unscathed.
Syracuse couldn’t say the same. When Perkins fed Jordan for a three from the high post, the Orange trailed 62-57. When Perkins ripped Harris’ miss out of the air and fed Massinburg for a make inside, the game pointed toward a double-digit lead for Buffalo.
The seconds ticked away leaving Syracuse heaving prayers and empty seats to let the cheers of the remaining Buffalo fans be heard. They’ll almost certainly head to their fourth NCAA Tournament in five years behind their best start since 1930-31. For the 7-4 Orange, their fate is becoming less clear.
Video recap and takeaways from our Dylan Finer here.
Syracuse will host Arkansas State on Saturday from the Carrier Dome. That game tips at 2 p.m. ET.