Gene Collier: Buzz-filled matchup ends with a lasting sting for Pitt



Nearly five long and nasty Pittsburgh winters had passed since the last time Pitt tangled with the No. 1 basketball team in America within these city limits, so there was nothing contrived about the vibrant buzz for Wednesday night's Panthers appointment with unbeaten Syracuse.

A-Listers were sprinkled liberally at courtside, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Miss Pennsylvania Valeri Gatto among them, and wait, is that ... Bieber?

Naw.

Some freshman psych major with the hair though, right?

On state, the Orange came out with maximum polish, 23-0, and Jamie Dixon's program, having made part of its reputation over the years for bruising some of Syracuse's finest products, was clinging to its No. 25 ranking with every fiber of its existence.

Let's just say the people you caught looking at their phones were not trying to get a partial score from the Richmond-Duquesne game across town.

The Pete was totally focused.

But as Pitt and Syracuse banged each other around in that wistful Big East way of theirs, this major plot point of ACC politics was clearly going to turn on which team brought more poise to the moment, and that was awfully hard to determine.

For all of its impressive defense and relentless rebounding, Pitt nearly managed to blow a seven-point lead in the first half. Undeterred, the Panthers did themselves one worse, blowing a nine-point lead in the second half, and when it mattered most, they let a six-point lead evaporate in the final 1:56.

"We really played excellent down the stretch," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. "We've played good in end-game situations all year. Based on the way we've played in the first 36 or 37 minutes of most games, we probably should be about 20-4, or 19-5. But the last three or four minutes we've been just about perfect in all those situations."

Wednesday night, of course, they weren't just about perfect.

They were just perfect, as perfect as the shot Tyler Ennis launched from approximately Gibsonia with the game clock running out, the one that beat Pitt, 58-56, after a climax in which poise on both sides was paramount.

"It was a great basketball game," said Boeheim flatly. "Two teams gave everything they had out there."

True that, but Pitt is pretty sick of looking at how great Ennis can be, because his six points in the final two minutes at Syracuse last month cemented a 59-54 Orange crush, and then Wednesday night, he drove to the rack with Syracuse trailing by one with 10.8 seconds on the clock. James Robinson fouled him, and Ennis went to the line in the din of 12,935 at the Pete.

From there he zipped home two free throws as casually as if he were standing in a driveway in his native Brampton, Ontario.

Unblinkingly, Talib Zanna stood at the opposite line not seven seconds later and made two free throws as casually as if he were standing in a driveway in his native Kaduna, Nigeria.

Don't tell me Pitt wasn't clutch Wednesday night. The Panthers made their final 10 free throws, those last two snatching the lead back with 4.4 seconds on the clock, but Ennis had one more miracle at his disposal.

Only a stride or two across the midcourt line, Ennis let his final shot fly.

The net caught it 35 feet away.

"You make a shot like that, it's just meant for you to win," said Pitt senior Lamar Patterson, who missed 11 of his 16. "We don't feel like there was a lot more we could have done. He took the shot we wanted him to take."

Uh-huh. Take it, don't make it; shake it, don't break it.

So as Syracuse stays unanimously No. 1 at 24-0 and Pitt likely slips from the top 25 at 20-5, damage is probably minimal to the home team despite its cloying lack of a so-called signature win.

Happily, college basketball works this stuff out in March with a glorious system by which nobody has to go play in the Pizza Bowl in Detroit.

After having slogged its way past a bad Miami team on the road and a miserable Virginia Tech team at home, the Panthers at least seized the opportunity to show it would bang with the best team in the country for 40 minutes.

Imagine what Dixon's team could do if it could, you know, shoot.

The Panthers went 10 for 28 in the first half, 8 for 22 in the second. You should win when you outrebound the best team in the country, 35-24. That's an old basketball axiom, just like you should never disappoint Miss Pennsylvania.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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