SYRACUSE Tyler Ennis may be a freshman academically and in his college basketball life. But theres no doubt the Syracuse rookie point guard is among the most mature young players the Orange has ever had.
Already established as one of the top newcomers in the nation through his play the first two months of the season, the 6-foot-2 Canadian entered his name in Orange hoops lore Saturday with a remarkable clutch performance in the final two minutes with No. 2 SUs unbeaten season on the line.
With the Orange trailing by a point, Ennis scored on two sensational driving layups, both past Pittsburghs 6-foot-8 center Talib Zanna, to give SU the lead for good. He then converted two key free throws with 4.7 seconds remaining to lift the Orange to a wild 59-54 victory over the Panthers in their first meeting as ACC foes.
SU (18-0 overall, 5-0 ACC) took over first place from the Panthers (16-2, 4-1) by handing the ball to one of its youngest player at crunch time and allowing him to make winning plays before 30,046 screaming fans in the Carrier Dome.
Tyler won the game, its that simple, said SU coach Jim Boeheim. He just has a knack for getting to the hoop and then finishing. Weve had a few like that in Carmelo (Anthony) and Gerry (McNamara) as freshmen, but they dont come around too often.
For Ennis, who finished with 16 points, it was just another game, another chance to make a big play for his teammates.
Whether its me or Trevor (Cooney) or C.J. (Fair), were just looking for a big play, Ennis said. They were guarding those guys hard, so it opened up some space for me and I just took it.
In a tight game between former Big East Conference rivals, Pittsburgh had seized a three-point lead with under three minutes to play.
Jerami Grant (12 points) broke a long scoring drought for SU by hitting two free throws with 2:39 left to bring the Orange within a point.
After a Pittsburgh miss, Ennis found himself with the ball at the top of the key. He gave his defender a head fake and went hard down the lane. When Zanna, the Panthers top inside defender, went up for the block, Ennis went under his arm and scooped up a layup to make it 53-52 at the 1:48 mark.
Coach told me to take it if the lane opened up, Ennis said. I saw Zanna come over, but he was just a second late.
After a wild sequence in which Pittsburgh missed two 3-pointers and Cooney chased down a long rebound, Boeheim put the ball in his freshman leaders hands again.
Ennis made the same kind of move, but instead he went to the left hand and laid the ball in with 30.6 seconds left as Zanna could only swipe at the ball.
If I go up right-handed, he probably blocks it, Ennis said.
James Young made two free throws at the 4.8 second mark to trim the deficit to one. Pittsburgh decided to foul Ennis immediately, and Ennis calmly sunk both free throws.
Patterson, who finished with 18 points and hit four second-half 3-pointers, then missed his first free throw after SU fouled him with 2.7 seconds remaining.
He also missed the second on purpose, Rakeem Christmas grabbed the rebound, was fouled and made two free throws to seal the win.
Fair added 13 points and Christmas had 10 big points for the Orange, who beat Pitt in the Dome for only the third time in the last nine meetings.
It was a tremendous defensive game, Boeheim said. I thought our offense was about as its been all year. You dont shoot 50 percent (51.2) against their defense. The only thing that prevented us from winning easily was we stopped rebounding and gave them 19 second-chance points.
Pittsburgh held a 35-24 advantage on the boards, and grabbed 16 offensive rebounds.
We know their style is to crash the boards hard, but we didnt box out very well, Fair said. Our initial defense was really good. But you give a team like Pitt that many extra chances and it will come back to haunt you.
SU led 25-21 at intermission. The Orange lead grew to as much as 10 points (37-27) before Patterson connected on three consecutive 3-pointers.
SUs offense stalled as Pittsburgh switched to a zone for a few minutes. The Panthers finally caught up then went ahead 49-48 as Patterson drilled a long three with just under six minutes to go.
Two Patterson free throws upped the Pitt lead to 52-49, and the Orange went nearly four minutes without a field goal before Grants two free throws and the two Ennis highlight plays.
When Tyler has the ball in his hands, good things usually happen, Cooney said. He wants the ball, and we all have confidence in him to do the right thing.
Said Ennis: The guys trust me, and that makes it easy. Im in the perfect situation with guys who can make plays.
Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon, who is now 10-5 vs. Boeheim, said he knew Ennis was a special kid just watching him on tape. I thought we did a really good job limiting his penetration until those last two sequences. I can see why Jim has so much confidence in the kid.
SU now has a week off until it travels to Miami next Saturday. The Orange beat the Hurricanes by only five points in the Dome earlier this season.