I'll admit that I thought the game was lost.
When Pittsburgh Panther big man Talib Zanna hit the second of two free throws with 4.4 seconds left in the game on Wednesday, I texted my old 'Cuse buddy StrawHatGuy that it had been a good run. I fully expected the Syracuse Orange to take their inevitable first L of the season and to trudge home to resume the business of preparing to win basketball games.
And then #TylerTime happened.
As he has so many times this season, super frosh Tyler Ennis made the play that needed to be made, dribbling 2/3 the length of the court and launching a 35-foot prayer to beat the buzzer and Pittsburgh. It was the stuff legends are made of. It was the stuff instant classics are made of (you can catch the replay on ESPNU at 1:00 PM ET). It was the most improbable ending to the back and forth slug fest reminiscent of the Syracuse/Pitt battles of old.
Yet, looking back at those final seconds, Ennis' miracle shot doesn't seem all that unlikely. Everything in that scenario was in the advantage of Syracuse. That's not to say it wasn't a tremendous play by a truly special player. Just that the odds weren't necessarily against him. Allow me to explain.
Made Free Throw
It begins with the fact that the play came after a made basket. Even after Pitt coach Jaime Dixon called timeout (bonehead coaching move of the year, IMO), inbounder Jerami Grant was allowed to run the baseline. This is significant for a couple of reasons.
First, it allowed Grant to help get a good passing angle. A clean inbound was critical, so having both passer and receiver able to move was a tremendous benefit. Second, it prevented Pitt from guarding the inbounder. This again helped with getting a clean pass to Tyler Ennis, who was already on the run toward the basket when he received the pass.
Would the play have been impossible had Grant been forced to remain stationary? No. But being able to roam the baseline was a huge advantage.
4.4 Seconds Remaining
Anyone who watches basketball regularly can tell you that four seconds and change is plenty of time to get a decent shot, even when inbounding from under your own basket. What made it so important here was that it allowed Ennis time to dribble up the court without passing. Jim Boeheim said after the game that the play he drew up was to go long to C.J. Fair. Luckily that's not the play Grant made. More often than not, those types of plays don't wind up in Christian Laettner plays. They usually end up in the pass being intercepted or at least tipped, wasting precious seconds.
Not only did Grant not have to attempt a Peyton Manning-esque touchdown play, but Ennis didn't have to give up the rock. There was really no place for him to go with it. Grant and Rakeem Christmas were behind him. Fair and Trevor Cooney were ahead, blanketed by Pitt defenders. To try to advance the ball with a pass likely would have ended any chance that Syracuse had of getting a decent shot. But those 4.4 second ensured they didn't have to.
Pitt Up by One
Basically, it boils down to this; being up only one forced Pitt to defend the whole court. If they had been up two, perhaps they cheat up toward Ennis more, risking giving up a tying layup rather than a game winning three. Instead, they had to stick with C.J. and Trevor all the way down the court, giving Ennis a little more room to work his magic.
Then there's the ongoing debate of, "If you're up by three late, do you foul or play out the clock?" With only 4.4 second left, I don't think there's any doubt Pittsburgh fouls there if they had been up three. Even if Syracuse makes both and commits a quick foul after, the game is essentially over at that point. So, with Pitt only up one, fouling was absolutely out of the question. Or was it?
Pitt's Foul Situation
So, let's reset. There's 4.4 seconds left. Syracuse is down one, inbounding after a made free throw. Pitt is just trying to prevent anything over the top. If only they had a foul to give, they could kill the clock some. But they don't. Tyler Ennis drew the ninth team foul on the Panthers on his driving layup with 10.4 seconds left. Any foul committed by the Panthers on the final play would have resulted in two free throws for the Orange.
So, why is this important? Or course Pitt's not going to foul on purpose, they're only up one. Syracuse being in the double bonus, though, forced the Panthers to be extra cautious with their defense. If Syracuse had been shooting 1 and 1, perhaps Pitt presses up a little more, willing to risk a foul on the chance that the Syracuse shooter misses the front end. Hell, maybe they even foul a poor free throw shooter like Rakeem Christmas before the ball is even inbounded. The fact that it would have been two shots regardless forced the Panthers to play soft.
What was the result? True, Pitt tried to trap Ennis as he dribbled up the court. True, they were able to corral him toward the sideline somewhat. True, they slowed him down enough to force him to take a running 35 footer. But, if you look at it, this is what really happened; Tyler Ennis crossed over a couple of Pittsburgh Panthers and hit what was basically an uncontested three point shot. A very long shot, a very difficult shot, but still a pretty much wide open three from a spot you know he shoots from in practice just in case he needs to launch a game-winning three with time expiring.
Again, don't get me wrong. In no way am I trying to diminish the amazing final play that gave Syracuse only it's second ever W at the Pete. Just that, on further review, we should have expected Ennis to make that shot because everything that could have been in Syracuse's favor during those final 4.4 seconds was. Especially the fact that Tyler Ennis was wearing an orange jersey Wednesday night.
What do you think? Love it? Hate it? Leave your comments below. Chris Daughtrey is the creator and author of Bleeding Orange. He is a contributor at Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician and at Atlantic Coast Confidential. You can connect with him on Twitter @OrangeBlood 44 or search #OrangeBlood.
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