NEW YORK (AP) – Ohio State coach Thad Matta doesn’t want to anoint freshman Kosta Koufos as the next big thing just yet.
The 7-foot freshman scored a career-high 24 points to help the Buckeyes beat No. 21 Syracuse 79-65 on Wednesday night in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals.
“Time’s going to tell,” Matta said. “You spend 15 minutes with him and you know he’s 18 years old. I really believe we do kids an injustice by … he plays a good game and we blow him up.”
Koufos has gotten better every game. He had 18 in his debut against Wisconsin-Green Bay and then scored 19 against Columbia to help Ohio State advance to New York.
“As good as he was, there was so much room for him to improve.”
The Buckeyes (3-0) will play No. 16 Texas A&M on Friday night in the championship game. The Aggies beat Washington 77-63 in the other semifinal.
“I’ve seen a little bit of them,” said Matta of his finals opponent. “I know they are big. They’re huge.”
Othello Hunter added 15 points and Jamar Butler had 14 for the Buckeyes.
“Butler really controlled the game and hit the shots when he needed to,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “He hit four big 3-pointers.”
Donte Greene scored 21 and Eric Devendorf added 15 for the Orange (3-1), who beat Siena and Saint Joseph’s to advance to the semifinals. Syracuse had won the NIT championship the previous two times the Orange made it to New York in 1988 and 2001.
Leading 42-34 at the break, Koufos scored the first basket of the second half to extend the lead to 10 before Syracuse went on a 9-2 run to close to 46-43.
The Buckeyes answered right back with an 8-1 spurt to take a 56-44 lead on Butler’s 3-pointer with 12:35 left. Ohio State increased the lead to 15, hitting three more 3-pointers, including another one by Butler that made it 67-52.
“This win is very satisfying,” Butler said. “To have an opportunity to come here and advance to the championship, I’m very happy.”
Syracuse could get no closer than 11 the rest of the way.
“When we were patient we got some pretty good looks, and we just didn’t knock them down,” Boeheim said.
Ohio State was down 20-15 midway through the first half, before using a 16-4 run to take a seven point lead. Koufos scored the last six points of the spurt with a 3-pointer and a three-point play with 5:43 left in the half. The teams traded baskets and the Buckeyes went into the break up 42-34.
Koufos finished the first half with 15 points, shooting 6-for-8 from the field.
Ohio State holds a 4-2 edge in the all-time series with the last meeting coming Nov. 24, 2000 in the semifinals of the Great Alaska Shootout.