BUFFALO, N.Y. — The zone is purring again for Syracuse — and so is Trevor Cooney.
Cooney scored 18 points, breaking out of a long slump, fellow guard Tyler Ennis had 16, and the Orange defense clamped down in a 77-53 victory over Western Michigan on Thursday in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Syracuse (28-5), the third seed in the South Regional, will play 11th-seeded Dayton (24-10) on Saturday. Dayton beat Ohio State 60-59 on Thursday.
Western Michigan (23-10), the Mid-American Conference champion, had won 14 of 16 games and was in the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade.
The Orange forced 11 turnovers in the opening half and scored 13 points off them in running out to a double-digit lead before the midpoint of the period.
The Orange used an 18-4 spurt over 10 minutes to take control and led 40-21 at halftime.
Cooney hit 4 of 8 from beyond the arc and Ennis had six assists with one turnover. Jerami Grant finished with 16 points, while C.J. Fair, double- and triple-teamed nearly every time he touched the ball, finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds.
Shayne Whittington and Tucker Haymond led Western Michigan with 11 points apiece. David Brown, the MAC scoring champion, finished with a season-low nine points on 2-of-12 shooting, 2 of 10 from long range.
Syracuse rode its defense to the Final Four a year ago and the zone was stellar from the opening tip against the Broncos.
The Broncos split two games with Eastern Michigan during the season, learning the nuances of the zone defense employed by Eagles coach Rob Murphy, an assistant at Syracuse for eight years before taking over at EMU.
“We hope it’s a help,” WMU coach Steve Hawkins said.
Same system, maybe, but different personnel.
The Syracuse defense had to focus on WMU’s fifth-year seniors Whittington and Brown and did the job. Whittington was hounded in the lane, unable to generate much, taking just seven shots. And while Brown was his usual self at the free throw line, he had only four chances, hitting three.
The Broncos committed four quick turnovers as Syracuse took a 7-2 lead on a 3-pointer by Cooney just over 3 minutes in.
Brown led the MAC at 19.4 points per game and earned MVP of the conference tournament after scoring a career-high 32 points that included five 3-pointers in the final against Toledo, and he makes a good living at the free throw line.
Brown was 196 of 254 (77.2 percent) from the line, most of the fouls coming while he was attempting one of the 237 shots he took from behind the arc. He found no room to roam against the Orange, missing three times from well beyond the 3-point line before finally hitting near the midpoint of the opening half.
Whittington is a hulking figure in the lane at 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds, but Grant easily spun around him and slammed home a ferocious two-handed dunk to boost the Syracuse lead to 12-4.
Cooney’s second 3 and a layup by Ennis had the Broncos 13 points behind and reeling.
Fair’s three-point play and a 3-pointer from the wing by Ennis off a feed from Grant inside gave Syracuse a 31-13 lead with 4:08 to go in the half.
Whittington shook off a foul by Grant and hit a pretty hook in the lane that he turned into a three-point play and Brown followed with two free throws and his first 3 to give the Broncos a glimmer of hope.
Syracuse responded with a slam dunk by senior center Baye Moussa Keita, another 3 from Cooney, and a putback by Fair off a miss by Ennis to gain the 19-point halftime lead.
Syracuse won its first 25 games and was ranked No. 1 for three weeks before losing five of seven in a late-season skid.
Since matching a school record with nine 3-pointers that keyed a six-point win over Notre Dame, Cooney had hit just 10 of 51 (19.6 percent) from long range. That abysmal shooting came during Syracuse’s swoon.
That’s all forgotten now.
If the Broncos hoped to make a comeback in the second half, that idea was quickly squashed.
After a layup by Connar Tava — Grant was called for goaltending on the play — and a free throw by Haymond closed the gap to 16 points, Syracuse responded with an 8-2 spurt.
Cooney started it, slipping sideways on the wing and making a 3 while being fouled by Austin Richie. He hit the free throw for a four-point play at 17:09.
Fair then converted a reverse layup and Ennis fed Grant for a resounding slam dunk that elicited oohs and aahs from the crowd. Grant’s layup gave Syracuse a 56-32 lead with 12:33 left and the Broncos were finished.
Syracuse is only a 3-hour drive away, and the Orange faithful made their presence known. Pockets of orange-clad fans were in every corner of the First Niagara Center, but the Broncos had a vocal contingent, too, and the screaming began in the warmups.