Starkey: Pitt's lame offense to blame
Yes, it took a miraculous 35-footer to beat Pitt on Wednesday night, but the truth of the matter is that Syracuse had a chance only because Pitt's offense went lame in the final minutes.
One desperation field goal and six points in the final five minutes? Blame that more than anything.
“At the beginning of the game, we were letting them in the lane, and they were getting easy baskets,” said Syracuse forward Jerami Grant. “But toward the end, I felt like they really didn't know what was happening. They didn't have any easy looks.”
There will be talk of Jamie Dixon calling timeout with 4.4 seconds left to allow still-unbeaten Syracuse time to set up, but what did Syracuse set up? Tyler Ennis won the game 58-56 with an off-balance buzzer-beater on a burst of individual brilliance.
Dixon said he called timeout after Talib Zanna's free throws in order to make Syracuse in-bound the ball deeper. It worked, as far as that went. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim admitted his team wanted to make a long pass and ran “the wrong play.” That news didn't surprise Dixon, who figured Boeheim didn't draw up Ennis firing from 35 over two defenders.
“If (Boeheim did draw that up), that's why he has 900 wins, I guess,” Dixon said.
Pitt came into the game leading the ACC in field-goal percentage (conference games only) at 45.2 percent but shot just 18 of 50, or 36 percent. Dixon claimed his team kept attacking late, but it sure didn't look that way. Not from here and obviously not from Boeheim's seat.
“That's the way they chose to play,” Boeheim said of Pitt's kill-the-clock offense. “Duke took a shot (against Syracuse) every 15 seconds, maybe 14 seconds. … I think (Pitt) could get a shot quicker, but that's the way they played that.”
Several late possessions devolved into Pitt passing around the perimeter until the crowd started chanting down the final 10 seconds of the shot clock. Pitt then settled mostly for horrible shots.
Ennis' shot might have been part luck. So was Pitt's final field goal: Zanna's tip-in of an off-balance Lamar Patterson airball with about 1:40 left. That one gave Pitt a 54-48 lead it proceeded to squander with a few more failed possessions. It did get a decent shot with 11 seconds left when Patterson attacked baseline. But he missed a short jumper, and Pitt barely missed two tip attempts.
The Panthers won the battle of the boards 35-24 but committed eight second-half turnovers. Zanna had a terrific game with 16 points, 14 rebounds and those two clutch foul shots.
This was a monster effort, to be sure, against the No. 1 team in the country in front of the second-largest crowd (12,935) ever at the Pete. But Pitt still doesn't have a high-quality win and won't get another chance to secure one until the ACC Tournament begins next month. If they fail to stick around there, they might have to wait until the NCAA Tournament, assuming they get there.
Meanwhile, after beating Boeheim like a drum for seven years, Dixon now has lost three in a row and four of five to him. And Pitt has lost a bit of its home-court mystique.
Petersen Events Center remains a wonderful venue, of course, and the place was hopping for Syracuse just as it was for Duke. More than that, actually. This was the best crowd of the season. But it's fair to say teams aren't intimidated anymore.
Certainly the ACC doesn't seem deterred. Duke won here easily. Virginia won late. Virginia Tech nearly pulled an upset, and Syracuse, which had lost five of six and five in a row to Dixon-coached teams at the Pete, looked right at home.
Once upon a time, Pitt literally was unbeatable here. It opened the Pete with 34 consecutive wins. It ripped off 40 in a row from 2002-04, a streak that lasted two years and 68 days.
Now look: In a span of 17 days, Pitt has lost three home games and very nearly a fourth to a horrific Virginia Tech team. Two of those came on soul-crushing last-second shots.
Mystique? There must be some mistake.
The mistake Wednesday night was pulling up too soon.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.