Memories of Ennis shot in the past for Artis, Pitt


Jamel Artis doesn’t seek it out. He saw the replay on SportsCenter once and then immediately turned his TV off. Cameron Wright doesn’t talk about it, even when asked.

“I’m kinda mad you just brought it up,” Wright said. 

The last time Pitt’s and Syracuse’s men’s basketball teams met, a year ago this month at the Petersen Events Center, point guard Tyler Ennis preserved the then-No. 1 Orange’s undefeated record by making a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to defeat No. 25 Pitt, 58-56. 

“I still haven’t gotten that taste out of my mouth,” Artis said. “That one hurt.” 

“It’s not gonna happen this time.” 

Ennis has since departed for the pros, and, while Wright wasn’t actually angry about having to revisit the loss — or so he said — that dramatic ending reignited a competitive rivalry between the two programs. Neither squad has won by a double-digit margin the last three times they’ve played. It’s an annual meeting  that Wright says is a rivalry game for the Panthers (15-8, 4-5 ACC).

This year’s first of two matchups between the schools, at 4 p.m. on Saturday back at the Petersen Events Center, will likely have a different feel than their last handful, though, with both teams unranked for the first time since 2008. 

News came out on Wednesday that Syracuse (15-7, 6-3 ACC) had banned itself from postseason play in advance of the NCAA releasing its findings of an investigation into the school’s men’s basketball program – looking into violations committed before 2012 – to the governing body’s Committee on Infractions.

Artis doesn’t expect the affected players will ease up knowing that they don’t have a tournament, even the conference one, to work towards.

“It’s gotta be motivation for them,” Artis said. “They’ve gotta be coming out and playing hard every possession, even though they’re not gonna make it.” 

Wright, who has seen four years of these games as a redshirt senior, agreed, saying they’ve come to expect a challenge from their former Big East counterpart every year.

And while the current version of Syracuse’s team has struggled, barely defeating ACC bottom-dwellers Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, it isn’t without talent. Senior forward Rakeem Christmas averages almost a double-double every game: 18.3 points and 9.1 rebounds in 33.4 minutes of action. 

Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon says containing Christmas will require a mix of approaches. 

“It’s amazing what he’s become as far as a low-post threat offensively,” Dixon said. “He looks thinner, he looks quicker, more agile.”

Artis says keeping Christmas away from offensive rebounding opportunities, defending him early inside and having awareness on the weak side of where he is and what he’s doing will be key. 

Two of his teammates, Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije, also average double-digit scoring. 

What makes Syracuse tough collectively on the other side of the floor is its well-known 2-3 zone which relies on athletic, lengthy bodies. It ranks first in steals in the conference, second in blocks and fourth in field goal percentage defense and points allowed.

“Just taking a shot when you’re open, guys knowing when you’ll shoot it, making the right decision, not turning the ball over,” Wright said of the keys to success against it. “Obviously, you have to be patient.”  

Pitt has exhibited some of the latter qualities this season, ranking first in assists, second in assist to turnover ratio and fourth in turnover margin.

Artis, coming off a career performance against Bryant when he scored 32 points, has finished with double figures scoring in each of the last seven games. This performance has earned him the nickname “zonebuster” by Wright for his ability to find space in such schemes and make shots. 

The sophomore has a simple explanation for his recent success. 

“My teammates, they find me,” Artis said. “They want me to shoot the basketball, [and] I shoot it.” 

He will need to keep up his attacking ways for Pitt to emerge with the result Artis wants: one that will involve less stress this time around. 

“I don’t want it to be a close game at all,” Artis said.