A lot has been written about Tyler Ennis the past month. A lot. We even have our own look at why Syracuse is undefeated, which looks at, among other things, Ennis' great season. I wanted to avoid falling in line and writing the same clichés of the freshman who plays well beyond his years and has risen to the top of a great class of future NBA stars. But then Ennis went and did this:
Come on, how cool is that? Even his yelling celebration is nonchalant compared to his teammates. He might as well have yawned.
Before Wednesday night, Pittsburgh was 9-0 against top-five teams at The Pete. If you told the average person Syracuse would be down one with 4.4 seconds left on the road to a ranked Pitt team and they would actually pull out the victory, that person should’ve laughed in your face.
And you know what? You should’ve laughed in that person’s face as they’re laughed in your face. It’s not like Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna have won all nine of those games over the years. In fact, you could argue this particular has yet to beat a surefire NCAA tournament team.
But you know who was there for a lot of those games? Head coach Jamie Dixon. He knows how to take care of business at home against elite competition. So why did he call the timeout that helped Syracuse set the game-winning play?
Actually, I didn’t mind the timeout and thought it was a good decision. We often suffer from living in a results-based society, especially in the world of sports. Pitt lost so the timeout was bad. Some, like ESPN’s C.L. Brown, worried that it would allow Jim Boeheim, who was out of timeouts, to set something up for his team:
Ennius is too smooth .. why did Dixon call timeout though? Syracuse got to collect itself & make sure Ennis got the ball because of it
— C.L. Brown (@clbrownespn) February 13, 2014
But as Seth Davis pointed out, Syracuse was prepared before the timeout:
I disagree with those who criticize Dixon for calling that time out. Syracuse was ready to run a play either way.
— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) February 13, 2014
Boeheim tends to let his guys play in those situations, and he surely told them what to do in the previous timeout minutes earlier. It was Pittsburgh that was slightly unorganized and needed coaching. So Dixon did what was best for his team. He set up a good play, too, with Cameron Wright and Josh Newkirk double-teaming Ennis as he drove past midcourt down the right sideline.
Wright did a good job of forcing Ennis both into the double team and toward the sideline. But Newkirk, a freshman who, unlike Ennis, was actually playing like a freshman, didn’t keep his contain and was beaten by Ennis’ inside-out move, allowing space for the shot.
Slight Dixon for playing six-on-five (he spent as much time on the court as Patterson, to the point that the refs were practically shoving him back to the sidelines), but not for calling that timeout.
Let’s go back a bit to see how we got there. Down one with just over 10 seconds to play, Patterson drove into the heart of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone as it was over-rotating and slipped an extremely difficult pass to Zanna. The big man handled it cleanly and drew contact, hitting both free throws to put the Panthers up one. They don’t award assists for passes that lead to free throws, but Patterson definitely earned one there.
It seemed like a fitting end to the game. Pitt was better for most of the contest; it was only fair its two best players would connect for the game-winning points. And of course, the refs, who made their presence felt throughout the game, were involved in the play.
That play, though, was just sandwiched between two perfect examples of Ennis coming through when his team needed it most. Yes, there was the game-winner after Zanna’s free throws, but before that, Ennis hit two key free throws of his own. He pushed the ball out in transition by himself and earned a trip to the line, giving the Orange their first lead since being up 8-6 with 14:02 left in the first half.
Here’s ESPN’s stats team with the info to prove just how clutch Ennis has been:
— ESPN College BBall (@ESPNCBB) February 13, 2014
Wednesday night was no different. Ennis didn’t play the most complete game, but simply explodes at the end of tight contests. In the first half, he had three points. In the first 19:49 of the second half, he had five points. Then, in the final 11 seconds of the game, he had another five points.
It wasn’t just Ennis that kept Syracuse in the game, though. C.J. Fair hit jumpers on consecutive possessions in the final two minutes. The first was a corner three that brought the Orange to within three, for which he was wide open thanks in part to a slow closeout by Patterson. After an empty possession for Pitt, Fair came back down the other baseline and crossed up Patterson to hit a jumper, which pulled Syracuse to within one.
So while Ennis’s shot is what people will be talking about, everything that led up to it was just as important. Now, a look at everything after it. For Syracuse, it’s another special moment in what has been a special season. For Pitt, it’s another one that got away for a team that still lacks a signature win.
The Panthers are a combined 0-4 against Syracuse, Virginia, and Duke, the ACC’s top three teams. They will have at least one more chance to win a meaningful game: Saturday at North Carolina. If not, they have to hope the ACC tournament presents them with another opportunity to take down one the conference’s top teams.
The Orange, meanwhile, have won the first of three difficult road games, the other two being at Duke and Virginia. They finish the regular season playing four of their last five away from the Carrier Dome, which won’t be easy.
However, they have Ennis, (avoid a cliché about his maturity, avoid a cliché about his maturity…ah, screw it) a senior trapped in a freshman’s body, and Fair, an actual senior, leading them. It’s far too early to guess where the Orange will be at the end of the season, but Wednesday night showed there isn’t much they can’t do.