SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Pitt has had great success in recent years against Syracuse, and Saturday it appeared as if the Panthers were going to notch another victory against the Orange as they had several opportunities to add to their late lead.
But Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis, who obviously hasn’t been a part of this matchup before this season, made a couple of huge plays down the stretch to lead the Orange to a come-from-behind, 59-54 ACC win before a crowd of 30,046 at Carrier Dome.
Ennis led four Orange players in double figures with 16 points and three assists, but he made two layups off the dribble and two free throws in the final 1:48 to turn the game in Syracuse’s favor.
His first drive and basket came with 1:48 left which gave the Orange a 53-52 lead — their first lead since the 6:27 mark — and his second with 33 seconds to play and stretched the lead to 55-52.
“[Ennis] is a good player,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “He obviously made the nice drives at the end and he hurt us earlier with the 3-pointer at the end of a shot clock … he made some big plays. We recruited him so we were well aware of him and know how good he is.
“He made the plays when they needed him, got to the foul line at the end and made good decisions with the ball. I thought we guarded him well but again, over the course of time, he made some plays at the end.”
In between Ennis’ two drives, the Panthers missed two 3-point attempts with a chance to tie the score. Missed shots and missed opportunities basically were the story of the game as Pitt left a lot of points on the floor in the form of missed free throws and missed layups.
Syracuse finished on a 10-2 run and Pitt went the final 5:59 without making a field goal. The Panthers made only 13 of 23 free-throw attempts (56.5 percent) and were 18 of 47 from the field (38.3).
“I thought we had opportunities, we had chances, we had a 3-point lead with the ball down the stretch and obviously didn’t get it done,” Dixon said. “I thought we had some pretty good looks that we didn’t knock down. I don’t know what we could have done differently as far as get better shots. Simply put, they made a higher rate from the free-throw line and the floor.
“We have to learn from some things, but we played with a lot of heart and a lot of energy. They had seven blocked shots, so that was a part of [the missed layups]. I thought we powered up, there were some plays that I thought we did everything we needed to do and I thought we got it inside and had good looks but they have lot of physicality and a lot of long athletes.
“Considering how many offensive rebounds we had, I thought we needed to get to the [free-throw] line more.”
Pitt did pound the offensive boards, grabbing 16 offensive rebounds and turning them into 19 second-chance points as opposed to four offensive rebounds and only two second-chance points by the Orange. Overall, the Panthers won the rebounding battle, 35-24.
This was only the second win by Syracuse in the series in the past seven meetings at Carrier Dome. It also is Syracuse’s second win in a row against Pitt, which lost to the Orange in the 2013 Big East Conference tournament quarterfinals.
The Orange (18-0, 5-0) seized control of first place in the ACC with the win and remained one of only three unbeaten teams in Division I along with No. 1 Arizona (18-0) and No. 5 Wichita State (19-0).
Pitt (16-2, 4-1) fell into a second-place tie with Clemson (13-4, 4-1) and Virginia (13-5, 4-1), and that sets up a big game Tuesday night at Petersen Events Center against Clemson.
The Panthers get another shot at the Orange Feb. 12 in the second leg of this home-and-home.
James Robinson, who scored six points and grabbed four assists, said the loss was frustrating because it was a game they probably should have won.
“We missed some chip shots and obviously the free-throw line costs us,” Robinson said. “But I didn’t think our defense was there for the entire 40 minutes and we didn’t get it done … they did in the end. We were trying to help on [C.J.] Fair but you can’t let a guy like [Ennis] drive down the lane, we have to do better.
“The free throws clearly got us but once you start giving up those high-percentage field goals with your defense, all those things add up and it didn’t go our way.”
After Ennis gave the Orange, who were 21 of 41 (51 percent) from the field, a 55-52 lead, Lamar Patterson missed a 3-pointer but Mike Young got the rebound, was fouled and made two free throws to pull Pitt to within 55-54 with 4.7 seconds to play.
Ennis then hit two free throws to push Syracuse’s lead to 57-54, and the Orange fouled Patterson with 2.7 seconds left before he could attempt a 3-pointer.
Patterson, who finished with a game-high 18 points, missed both and Rakeem Christmas capped the scoring with two free throws with 1.2 seconds to play.
Talib Zanna registered a double-double for the Panthers(12 points and 11 rebounds) and Cameron Wright added nine points and six rebounds.
Syracuse, which led, 25-21, at the half, opened the largest lead of the game at 37-27 with 14:31 to play on an Ennis 3-pointer late in the shot clock.
At that point, the Panthers seemed to be in danger of letting the game slip away but Patterson made three consecutive deep 3-pointers to pull the Panthers back to within 39-36. From that point, it was a one- or two-possession game the rest of the way.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1720 or Twitter @paulzeise.