Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis has a flair for the dramatic late in games this season. His reputation as one of the best players in the clutch is growing.
Wednesday night, he did it again when he hit a running 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift the No. 1-ranked Orange to a 58-56 win against Pitt before a crowd of 12,935 at Petersen Events Center.
It was the second time this season the Panthers were the victim of Ennis' late-game heroics. He scored six points in the final 1:50 to bring the Orange from behind in a 59-54 win when the two teams met Jan. 18 in Syracuse.
That was not nearly as tough on the Panthers as this one. This time, they blew a six-point lead with 1:56 to play but appeared poised to win with a 56-55 lead with 4.4 seconds to play after Talib Zanna made two free throws.
But the Orange (24-0, 11-0 ACC) inbounded the ball to Ennis, who dribbled across the half-court line and let the shot go with about a second left. From about 35 feet and much to the dismay of the Panthers, it went right in.
"We did everything right [on the last possession], and he hit that prayer," Pitt senior Lamar Patterson said. "It was a great shot.
"I guess it was meant for them to win. When you hit a shot like that, it is meant for you to win. We played a great game, and when the No. 1 team has to hit a shot like that to win, you know we did a good job."
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said the Panthers played extremely hard, played well enough to win in many ways and have nothing to hang their heads about. But, in the end, it came down to execution and the Orange were a little better down the stretch.
"Well I'll state the obvious and say we are extremely disappointed because we felt like we had played well enough to win," Dixon said. "I was proud of Talib [for making free throws down the stretch to give Pitt a chance to win], and there were a lot of good things for us, and, at the end of the day, it was a loss. But they made big shots.
"The two shots [C.J.] Fair hit were tough shots, and then the shot that Ennis hit was a terrific shot. I thought we guarded him as well as we could. We made him catch the ball deep and we knew he was going to get a shot off, but he made a tough one, one with two hands in his face and two guys guarding him.
"We knew he would have the ball and he'd be the guy, and we had two guys on him but he made a big shot."
Ennis, who finished with 13 points and five assists, told ESPN after the game he was just looking for the best look he could get and that his team has a lot of confidence in late-game situations.
Coach Jim Boeheim agreed and said the finish was typical of many Syracuse games this year in that the Orange didn't play well until their backs were against the wall late and needed to make plays.
"We really played excellent down the stretch with obviously C.J. making his three and then the jumper and then Tyler making two free throws," Boeheim said. "We've played good in game situations like that all year. Probably the way that we have played in the first 36 or 37 minutes of most games, we should be about 20-4 or even 19-5 [as opposed to 24-0]. But, in the last three or four minutes we've been just about perfect in those situations.
"We've been down by four or five, three or four at least six or seven times and we've been able to finish games."
Boeheim said the last play was designed to be a long pass to Fair, but Ennis was the second option and he made a great play.
"What can I say," Boeheim said. "It was a great basketball game with two teams that gave everything they had out there."
This was the first time a team ranked in the top five has beaten the Panthers at Petersen Events Center in 10 tries. Pitt fell to 13-2 in games on this home-court against teams ranked in the Top 10, and they are 2-15 anywhere against a No. 1 team.
Syracuse was led by Fair's 14 points and remained one of two undefeated teams left in the country and atop the ACC standings. Wichita State is the only other unbeaten team.
It was a crushing defeat for Pitt (20-5, 8-4) as it controlled most of the game and looked poised to get back into the race for the ACC regular-season title. Instead, the Panthers likely are out of it.
The Panthers held a 54-48 lead with 1:56 left after Zanna, who finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds, tipped in a missed 3-pointer by Patterson. Fair countered with a 3-pointer with 1:30 remaining and a jumper from the wing with 50 seconds left to pull Syracuse within 54-53.
Ennis made two free throws with 10.8 seconds left to put the Orange ahead, 55-54, but Zanna was fouled going to the basket.
Pitt lost despite outrebounding the Orange, 35-24, but the Panthers got a great night at the free-throw line from Zanna, who made 8 of 9, and Patterson helped with 14 points.
Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.
First Published February 12, 2014 9:29 PM