SU escapes with close victory over former Big East rival Pittsburgh

Freshman guard Tyler Ennis played well in the final two minutes of Saturday's match-up to keep SU's undefeated season alive.

SU’s freshman point guard Tyler Ennis remained cool, calm and collected in the final two minutes of No. 2 Syracuse’s 59-54 victory over No. 22 Pittsburgh. During that stretch, Ennis scored six of his 16 points, which helped secure the victory for the Orange (18-0) over the Panthers (16-2) Saturday afternoon.

The Orange were on the brink of defeat with 4:41 left in the game after Panthers’ forward Lamar Patterson sunk two free throws to extend the Pitt lead to three. But a couple of free throws made by sophomore guard Jerami Grant cut that lead back down to one, setting up the brilliant finals moments for Ennis.

On the ensuing possession for the Orange, Ennis faked toward the pick set up by Grant on his right, drove with his left hand and hop-stepped toward the basket, where he avoided contact with Talib Zanna to softly roll the ball off the rim and into the basket. That shot put the Orange up one and shifted momentum back on the home team’s side.

“I knew I could beat him to the paint,” Ennis said on that layup attempt against Zanna. “I knew he was athletic enough to get up there and block it. I just had to get it up quickly and get it up high enough to where he couldn’t get it."

SU's Coach Jim Boeheim expresses frustration with a referee's call. (Photo: Andrew Renneisen)

Ennis used the same line of thinking on his second layup attempt with a little over 30 seconds remaining and SU up one point. Ennis once again drove left, took on Zanna at the free throw line and kept him on his right hip until he got to the basket, where Ennis made the layup. Up 55-52, there was still time left for a Pittsburgh comeback; but after both teams exchanged free throws, the Panthers only had time for one last shot with 4.5 seconds remaining.

The Orange opted to foul the Patterson off the inbound instead of relying on a missed three-pointer. The plan worked for coach Jim Boeheim, as Patterson missed both free throws, sealing the game for SU after Rakeem Christmas rebounded the second miss.

SU's Trevor Cooney (#5) driving against Pitt's Chris Jones (#15). (Photo: Andrew Renneisen)

Christmas’s game was a microcosm of the game that the team had as a whole. Christmas was efficient and effective on offense, and he converted on all four of his shot attempts for a total of 10 points on the afternoon. Three of those baskets were made off of quick turnaround hook shots, something Christmas worked on with assistant head coach Mike Hopkins.

“We had all been working on the hook shot a lot in practice,” Christmas said, “so it was nice to use it and that it worked out.”

That offensive domination gave way to gaps in effective rebounding and consistent defense, where the game was nearly lost. Christmas had a mere four rebounds and was part of the reason the Panthers capitalized on 19 second-chance points.

“I thought offensively, we played as well as we could play. You don’t shoot 50 percent against Pittsburgh, not many teams do,” Boeheim said. “We just couldn’t rebound the basketball.”

SU players C.J. Fair (#5), Rakeem Christmas (#25) and Tyler Ennis (#11) take on Pitt's Chris Jones (#12) and Talib Zanna (#41). (Photo: Andrew Renneisen)

Syracuse finished the game shooting 51.2 percent from the field, five points higher than what it have averaged so far this season. That efficiency covered the disparity in offensive rebounds between the two teams as Pittsburgh grabbed 12 more offensive rebounds than the Orange. Zanna was a big reason for that, grabbing 11 total rebounds, four of which were offensive.

“First game, really this year, that the boards would have been the determining factor of the game if it wasn’t for Tyler (Ennis) making the plays he made down the stretch,” Boeheim said. 

Ennis wasn’t alone in his heroics. Grant and C.J. Fair combined to score 25 points and grab 10 rebounds in the game. But, Grant and Fair were not free of blame for the defensive collapse in the second half, as they were constantly out of position in the waning moments of the game.

With the win, not only does Syracuse remain one of only three undefeated teams in the country, but it claims sole possession of number one in the ACC.

The defense will look to pick up its effort in SU’s next game against Miami next Saturday, the second time they two teams will play each other this season.  

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