Tyler Ennis made a big statement in his pursuit of national Freshman of the Year honors by saving No. 1 Syracuse’s undefeated record on Wednesday, Feb. 12. The freshman point guard nailed a three-point buzzer-beater to stun No. 25 Pittsburgh on its home floor, 58-56.
The Panthers controlled the flow of the game for most of the night, but Ennis and senior C.J. Fair started to swing the momentum back in Syracuse’s favor over the final 10 minutes. Ennis had already given Syracuse one chance at a win by burying two free throws with 10 seconds to play, but Talib Zanna put Pitt back up with two foul shots of his own to set up Ennis’ final heroics.
Zanna—and the rest of the country—could be forgiven at this point for asking, "What's it going to take to beat this team?"
This kind of nail-biting escape is far from unfamiliar to anyone who’s been following this year’s Syracuse squad. The overtime win at home against Duke grabbed all the headlines, but this Orange team has needed comebacks and last-minute saves on plenty of other occasions.
Even in a typically soft Jim Boeheim nonconference schedule, Cornell won the first half at the Carrier Dome and St. Francis took the Orange down to the final minute in a 56-50 defeat. The pattern has continued against more celebrated opponents, in a group that now includes Pitt twice, along with the Blue Devils, Notre Dame (61-55 in Syracuse) and even lowly Miami (49-44 at the Carrier Dome).
One of the common threads of those escapes has been the same pair of clutch performers who stood tall on Wednesday. Fair hit the decisive shot against the ‘Canes and scored his career high against Duke, while Ennis came through with the game-winning scoring spurt in the first meeting with the Panthers. Jerami Grant, too, deserves some credit in this department for his big baskets late in the St. Francis and Duke games.
In other words, this high-wire act is one that has proved repeatedly that it can survive games it might not deserve to win. Indeed, as ESPN’s Stats and Info department notes, it was absurdly unlikely for the Orange to survive this one.
That’s the kind of late-game pedigree that gives Syracuse an outside chance at running the table in the regular season. Seven games remain before the ACC tournament, of which two (at Duke and at Virginia) stand out as the obvious trouble spots.
Virginia, another offense-starved team like the Panthers, will almost certainly play a similar slowdown approach and try to overcome the Orange’s late-game magic. Duke, of course, has already seen how closely matched it is with Boeheim’s squad, and the duel at Cameron Indoor has every probability of being yet another white-knuckle finish.
Nothing succeeds like success, especially in high-pressure situations where players tend to freeze or to try to do too much. Syracuse knows that Ennis will get the job done when the game comes down to those last crucial possessions.
As Boeheim said of his young standout during his postgame comments to ESPN’s Doris Burke (h/t Adam Zagoria), “You gotta be a little lucky, but you still gotta shoot it.” He's not just a scorer, either, as Wednesday marked his sixth straight game with at least five assists.
Does all of this mean that the Orange can become the first team since Bob Knight’s 1975-76 Hoosiers to win an undefeated national title? Probably not. After all, not only the weight of history but also the vagaries of the NCAA tournament will be against them.
But if they do suffer a loss, it’s not going to be the lack of a last-second hero that does them in.