It was the definition of a stunner. On a night when everything seemed to go the Panthers’ way, the Orange seemingly needed a miracle to pull out a victory and remain one of just two undefeated teams in the country.
Miracle, thy name is Tyler Ennis.
The super frosh from Canada hit what is probably one of the top five biggest shots in Syracuse basketball history; a 35-foot, buzzer-beating heave to lift the Orange to a 58-56 victory at the Petersen Events center.
Big East Flashback
One of the concerns for the teams moving from the stereotypically physical Big East to the stereotypically finesse (read: soft) ACC was the adjustment to the style of play. Would teams like Pittsburgh and Syracuse, used to beating on each other, be able to cope with the tighter officiating in the new conference? Thus far, I’ve been unable to see a real difference. Syracuse is still among the national leaders in fewest fouls committed. Whether this is due to the Orange adjusting to the officiating or the differences between conferences being overstated is unclear (I lean toward the latter), but it was never more evident than in the game Wednesday night.
Syracuse and Pittsburgh didn’t play a basketball game. They staged a brawl on the hardwood. It was reminiscent of the old BEast games where is seemed like the first team to 50 would win. It was physical from the start, which was good. As I said to my old ‘Cuse buddy StrawHatGuy, the refs letting them play meant that Syracuse’s lone active center, Rakeem Christmas, was less likely to end up in foul trouble. This was critical as Rak played 35 minutes in a game where only six Orange players saw the floor.
Of course the reason Rak was in the game so much was due to the injuries to DaJuan Coleman and Baye Keita. With Pittsburgh’s physical presence inside, Jim Boeheim couldn’t afford to have the one center available to him on the bench for very long. For his part, despite picking up a silly offensive foul early on, Christmas did a great job of keeping himself in the game. They needed every second they could get from him.
The Pittsburgh Way
The game Wednesday night went pretty much exactly as the Panthers needed it to in order for them to win. They killed Syracuse on the glass, snagging 16 offensive rebounds en route to a 35024 rebounding edge. Senior center Talib Zanna (best known for this play) led the way with 14 total rebounds (7 OReb) in the contest.
It would be easy to point to the absence of Keita for Syracuse’s rebounding woes, but that’s over simplifying. Christmas was only on the bench for five minutes total. Those few minutes without a true center on the floor can’t account for the dominating performance on the glass by Pitt. It was simply a matter of strength vs. weakness. Pitt attacks the offensive glass. Zones, even one as good as Syracuse’s, are vulnerable to offensive rebounds. Even if all four centers (let’s not leave out Chinoso Obokoh) on the Orange roster had suited up for the game, chances are Pitt would have had its way on the glass.
So, how did the Orange manage to stay in the game? Or course, there were the usual suspects. Trevor Cooney was able to hit timely threes to keep the Panthers from pulling away. Rakeem Christmas provided strong play inside. And C.J. Fair did C.J. Fair things, especially near the end when he hit a clutch corner three and a nice pull up off a cross over to bring the Orange within one with under a minute to play.
The unsung hero, though, was redshirt sophomore Michael Gbinije. Silent G was the only bench player to see action for Boeheim and he made the most of it. He played 22 minutes, the most he has in ACC play, in relief of three positions. As usual with Gbinije, his contributions don’t really showup on the stat sheet. Seven points on 1-3 shooting doesn’t really impress. Four rebounds and an assist certainly helped. But it was his work on defense that made all the difference. Gbinije’s ability to play both the top and the wing of the zone with equal efficacy was a critical part of Syracuse’s holding Pitt to only 18 made field goals in 50 attempts. In what was bound to be a defensive struggle from the start, every possession was important and Gbinije’s contribution can’t be overlooked.
Despite Syracuse being able to largely overcome Pitt’s domination of the lane, the Orange trailed most of the game. After taking an 8-6 lead with 14:06 left in the first half, the Orange didn’t lead again until Tyler Ennis hit two free throws with ten seconds left in the game for a short-lived 55-54 Syracuse lead.
After Talib Zanna hit two free throws on the ensuing Pitt possession, it seemed like the Panthers had locked the game up with 4.4 left on the clock.
Fortunately for Syracuse, it was #TylerTime.
I won’t go too much into the shot itself. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a Syracuse fan and have watched the replay at least a few dozen times. What I want to look at instead is the circumstances that led to Ennis’ stunning game winner.
First, there’s the fact that it came after a made basket. Even after Pitt coach Jaime Dixon called a timeout (bonehead move, BTW), inbounder Jerami Grant was allowed to run the baseline, making is easier to get a clean inbound.
Second, there were 4.4 seconds left. Plenty of time for Ennis to dribble 2/3 the length of the court without the Orange having to try to advance the ball with a dangerous long pass. Most often those types of plays end up in turnovers, not Christian Laettner moments, so having the opportunity to advance the ball with the dribble was critical.
Third, Pitt was only up one. C.J. and Cooney were up ahead of Ennis, blanketed by Pitt defenders. They had to be guarded there instead of cheating up toward Tyler, as to not give up a game-winning layup. And then there’s the old, “If you’re up three late, do you foul or play out the clock” debate. I don’t think there’s any doubt that, had Pitt been up three, they foul. With only 4.4 seconds left, the Orange don’t have enough time to play the fouling game.
And, finally, Pitt’s foul situation. Ennis drew the Panthers’ ninth team foul on the drive that resulted in his go-ahead free throws. So, on the final play, any foul would have resulted in two shots for the Orange. Perhaps if Syracuse had only been shooting 1 and 1, Pitts plays a bit tighter, willing to risk a foul and the chance that the Syracuse shooter misses the front end. With the guarantee of two foul shots, though, Pitt had to play soft.
What was the result? Yeah, the Panthers were able to force Ennis into a tough shot, but it was by no means unmakeable, or even improbable. If you look back at it, this is what really happened; Tyler Ennis crossed over two Pitt Panthers and made an uncontested three. A very long, very difficult three, but still a three that was pretty much wide open from a spot that you know he shoots from in practice, just in case he needs to launch a 35-footer for the win.
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Chris Daughtrey is the creator and author of Bleeding Orange. He is a contributor at Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician and at Atlantic Coast Confidential. You can connect with him on Twitter @OrangeBlood 44 or search #OrangeBlood.