The Syracuse Orange weren’t at their best throughout their game against the rival Pittsburgh Panthers on Saturday at the Carrier Dome. But with first place in the ACC on the line, and the chance to preserve their unbeaten season, the Orange were far better than the Panthers and that’s all that mattered.
Syracuse’s 59-54 victory left the Orange as the lone remaining unbeaten team in the ACC and one of just three unbeaten teams in all of Division-I (Wichita State, Arizona). While Syracuse still hasn’t faced other potential ACC front-runners like Notre Dame, Duke, Virginia and Clemson, there isn’t a team in the conference right now that can make any kind of claim contrary to that of Syracuse being the class of the league.
In the final 4:41 of Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh, the Orange dominated on both ends of the floor, outscoring the Panthers 10-2. The only points Pitt (16-2, 4-1 ACC) scored in the stretch were a pair of free throws by Michael Young with five seconds left that made it 55-54 for Syracuse. But the Orange went 4-of-4 at the free-throw line to close the game out. Not only did the Orange hold Pitt without a field goal in the final 6:02, but the Panthers only managed eight field goal attempts during that time.
Syracuse’s dominance on both ends of the court in crunch time is comparable to how Duke used to close teams out in ACC and NCAA Tournament games during their years at the top of the conference. While Duke has been playing better of late (including a 35-point win over N.C. State on Saturday), the Orange are still the kings of the hill right now.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim can thank guard Tyler Ennis for a lot of that. Ennis led Syracuse with 16 points Saturday, including a pair of lay-ups in the final minutes that turned a one-point deficit into a three-point lead at 55-52. The Orange never lost the lead from that point, with Ennis adding two free throws to clinch the win. He led all Syracuse scorers with 16 points.
The most impressive thing about the Orange today, however, was that they beat Pitt basically with just five players. The Syracuse starting five, which included Ennis, C.J. Fair, Rakeem Christmas, Jerami Grant and Trevor Cooney, scored 57 of the Orange’s 59 points, had 20 of their 24 rebounds and combined for all 11 assists. Michael Gbinije and Baye-Moussa Keita were the only players to even get off the bench for the Orange and they offered very little other than Gbinjie’s two free throws and Keita’s three rebounds.
That Syracuse could pretty much only use their starting five to beat one of the top 25 teams in the country and win a battle between ACC unbeatens is the biggest clue to just how good this Orange team is. Syracuse will be tested in the near future, going on the road to take on Miami and Wake Forest before returning home for games against Duke (Feb. 1) and Notre Dame (Feb. 3). Maybe wear and tear will sneak up and catch Syracuse in one of these games, but that won’t happen unless the Orange’s opponents play a full, top-quality 40 minutes.
Pittsburgh couldn’t do that on Saturday and Syracuse, even using just their starters, made the Panthers play and took complete control of the ACC race.
Ed Morgans is an ACC Basketball Writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @writered21 and add him to your network on Google.