SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Pitt coach Jamie Dixon has a knack for guiding his Panthers to victory against Syracuse, and he nearly did it again.
Ahead by three points with time becoming a factor, No. 22 Pittsburgh had erased a 10-point deficit and was poised to knock off one of the three remaining unbeatens in Division I on Saturday. Instead, Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis scored six points in the final 2 minutes and the No. 2 Orange escaped with a 59-54 victory with first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference on the line between the former Big East rivals.
“I don’t feel any better about our team, or any worse,” said Dixon, still an impressive 5-2 in the Carrier Dome. “We had chances. We should have won.”
A pair of free throws by Lamar Patterson had staked Pittsburgh (16-2, 4-1) to a 52-49 lead with 4:41 to play.
Seconds later, Ennis nearly committed a turnover when hounded by James Robinson. But after Talib Zanna watched his short shot go in and out, Ennis hit a scooping layup at the other end to give Syracuse a 53-52 lead with 1:47 left and the Orange held it to the end.
“We got a couple of good shots. We just didn’t make them,” Dixon said. “We need to finish better around the basket.”
Pitt shot 38.3 percent (18 of 47) and Syracuse finished at 51.2 percent (21 of 41) in a very efficient game offensively. The Panthers entered the game leading the ACC with a 48.8 field goal shooting percentage.
In a seesaw game that was tight all the way, Ennis again took advantage of his driving ability, hitting a lefty layup after Patterson and Cameron Wright missed 3-pointers on the same possession with just over a minute to go.
“That’s what it comes down to – finishing and stopping them,” said Patterson, who missed what would have been a game-tying 3 with 5 seconds left. “We win the game if we do.”
Encouraged by coach Jim Boeheim to take more shots, Ennis hit that final layup with 30.6 seconds left for a 55-52 lead as the crowd of 30,046 shook the Carrier Dome with deafening roars.
“He made some of the best plays that I’ve seen in a long time,” Boeheim said. “You don’t get to the basket against Pittsburgh for two layups. He won the game for us down the stretch. We opened it up and we like to give him the opportunity in those situations. We were trying to give him an opportunity so he could get to the basket, and he has a knack for doing it that’s just about as good as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Syracuse (18-0, 5-0) entered the game 2-0 against former Big East rivals, with victories over St. John’s and Villanova. In four of the past five seasons, the Orange had started with at least 13 consecutive wins, and twice in the past four years Pitt had stopped those streaks.
The Panthers dominated the offensive glass 16-4, outscoring the Orange 19-2 on second-chance points, but they missed too many chances underneath and paid for it in the end.
“Obviously, they’re good,” Dixon said. “This is a tough place to play. They’ve won a lot of close games. We had a three-point lead, we had the ball, and we didn’t do the things we needed to do. We didn’t play great against Georgia Tech and it carried a little over into today.”
Robinson, who leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, had six points, four assists and one turnover for Pitt and Talib Zanna finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
C.J. Fair had 13 points, Jerami Grant added 12 and Rakeem Christmas 10 for Syracuse.
In an 81-74 victory at Georgia Tech on Tuesday night, Pitt won by dominating the glass 38-18. It was the Panthers’ closest victory of the season, the first 15 coming by an average of 17.8 points, including ACC wins over North Carolina State (74-62), Maryland (79-59) and Wake Forest (80-65). Pitt’s lone loss was 44-43 to Cincinnati in the Jimmy V Classic in mid-December.
Syracuse, accustomed to close games all season, led by four at halftime and quickly extended it early in the second half.
Grant’s one-handed floater in the lane capped a 7-0 spurt and a 3 by Ennis from the left wing gave Syracuse a 37-27 lead with 14:27 left.
Pitt erased most of that in a hurry as Patterson drained three 3-pointers in a 65-second span to narrow the lead to 39-36. He hit two from the wing and on the third he was wide open from the top of the key as Boeheim fumed on the bench.