In a clash of the top two teams in the ACC, former Big East Conference rivals Syracuse and Pittsburgh continued their long history Saturday afternoon when they met for the 103rd time. In what could generously be termed a ‘defensive struggle’, the Orange were able to overcome a double-digit rebounding deficit and tough out a 59-54 home victory over the 22nd-ranked Panthers. It was a game reminiscent of the old Big East, with enough contact and uncalled fouls for an entire month’s worth of ACC play. It was ugly, but beautiful at the same time.
Here is my report card from courtside:
Head of the Class
Tyler Ennis: Ennis muscled his way into the top slot with his performance in the last couple of minutes of the game, when he attacked the basket and dropped in two swooping layups (plus two clutch free throws) when SU was only up by a single point. He is starting to receive some serious national recognition, and is joining the conversation as one of the best freshmen – of not one of the best overall players – in the country. It is all worthy praise, by the way. Ennis has huge stones, and nothing seems to rattle him. His 16 points Saturday afternoon were some of the hardest fought he’ll ever score, and SU needed every one of them to pull out the win.
Boeheim was effusive (for him) in praising Ennis after the game. He said Ennis made some of the best plays he’d seen in a long time, and he “won the game” for SU down the stretch. Boeheim also said that the Orange offense is predicated around Ennis making plays at the top of the key, where they like to set him up with a ball screen and let him go to work. They trust that he will make the right play, and he did just that Saturday afternoon.
“They’re always telling me to shoot when I’m open,” said Ennis when asked about his two clutch layups. “I pretty much have to make the play. They (Pitt) broke down defensively, which they don’t normally do.”
Rakeem Christmas chimed in about his rookie point guard, adding “He definitely makes us look good. He’s a great point guard… and he likes to pass first. He showed us in (preseason) practice when he can do, and and he keeps doing it.”
C.J. Fair: Until Ennis went on his run to seal the game, I thought Fair had the top slot sewn up. He basically kept SU in the game with his individual offensive brilliance, scoring in a variety of ways both in the paint and on the perimeter. He filled out the stat sheet to the tune of 13 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 assists, all in 40 hard minutes against a physical Panther defense. It seemed like anytime Pitt threatened to make a run, Fair was there to squelch it with a tough bucket. His ability to get good one-on-one looks at the rim may be his most valuable asset, and when the Orange offense breaks down Fair is usually there to make something out of nothing.
Stay After School
Rebounding: We knew it was going to be a long afternoon on the glass, with Pitt outrebounding its opponents by an average of 9.4 coming into the day, but rebounding (or the lack thereof) almost lost the game for SU. The Orange were outrebounded 35-24 and gave up a whopping 16 offensive boards, which led to 19 second chance points for Pitt. Even accounting for the degree of rebounding difficulty the zone presents, that is still a major deficit. It isn’t often that a team is beaten that badly on the boards and still is able to pull out a win, so credit goes to SU for not giving up and continuing to battle hard for every loose ball.
Boeheim spent a couple of minutes after the game talking about his team’s rebounding effort, and flat out said that it almost cost them the game. “We forced them to take the shots we wanted them to,” he said, praising the team’s defense, “but they (Pitt) got them back.” He added that they will lose a game at some point if the team doesn’t improve its rebounding before the end of the season.
Final Grade: B+
The rebounding deficit is hard to overlook, but a win against another top 25 program is still a great win. This puts Syracuse (18-0 overall, 5-0 ACC) in the conference lead, but with Miami looming as one of those potential ‘trap games’ next Saturday there’s certainly no security in being up by one game over Pitt (16-2, 4-1) in the standings. However, I don’t think SU will take the Hurricanes lightly after barely squeaking by them a couple of weeks ago.
No news on the Dajuan Coleman front. He didn’t play for the fifth time in six games with that nagging knee injury, and there is no timetable from Boeheim or SU Athletics on when he’ll be back. It appears we’ll just have to take it game by game, but with a week off before visiting Miami this may be the best chance for him to get the rest he needs.
With Coleman out, Boeheim kept to his established seven-man rotation. The only non-starters to see court time were Baye Keita and Michael Gbinije, who logged 11 and 8 minutes, respectively. Barring injury or blowout this may very well be the lineup we see for the rest of the year, with or without the services of Mr. Coleman.
Tyler Ennis speaks to the media following the game Saturday afternoon.
For a more detailed recap and commentary on the game and Jim Boeheim’s postgame news conference, visit my Twitter feed by clicking here.