BUFFALO, N.Y. — Minutes removed from walking past a Dayton celebration, C.J. Fair sat in the corner of the Syracuse locker room.
Toes curled. Jersey still on. Head hanging forward, fully concealed by a white towel.
Five minutes passed. Media members uncomfortably watched as Fair sat there. Finally, he removed the veil and offered the faintest of smiles. But his eyes were swollen and he slumped against the wall, devastated by what had just transpired.
This was supposed to be the year. Fair had inched closer and closer to a championship in his four years. Now it was his time to shine, to return glory to a program so accustomed to greatness but with only one championship to its name.
But Syracuse came up two points short. After single-handedly keeping the Orange in the game down the stretch, Tyler Ennis missed a questionable pull-up jumper with eight seconds to go and SU down one, and then the 3 that would have won it. No. 3-seed Syracuse (28-6, 14-4 Atlantic Coast) fell to No. 11-seed Dayton (25-10, 10-6 Atlantic 10) 55-53 in the Round of 32 at First Niagara Center on Saturday, as its season came to a premature end.
“They were the better team tonight,” Fair said, rubbing his face and looking downward as he revealed a truth all too clear for the Orange after the game.
Ennis sat 15 feet away from Fair in the adjacent corner, bombarded by media. Just 15 minutes earlier, he nearly kept SU’s season alive with a go-ahead 3-pointer that rimmed out.
The typically quiet Rakeem Christmas was especially soft-spoken, as tears swelled in his eyes. Trevor Cooney kept his head down, two nights after lighting the gym on fire. The usually jovial Michael Gbinije sat in desolation.
“It would have been kind of a miracle season if something like that were to happen,” Ennis said. “Realistically you’re not going to hit every game winner unless you’re Kobe Bryant.”
But Ennis had given Syracuse fans reason for hope.
The superstar freshman already had a 35-foot buzzer beater to his name. Another game-winning layup. A 28-point performance.
Saturday’s game winner would have been the enchilada of them all. And he had already scored 11 points in the final four minutes.
“When it left my hands it looked good,” Ennis said. “Up until I saw it bounce out, I thought it was going to bounce back in.”
Ennis had another chance to push Syracuse ahead after a trap forced Dayton’s Jordan Sibert to step out of bounds with 14 seconds left.
But after swooping toward the basket for layup after layup in the game’s closing minutes, Ennis went away from what had been working.
He pulled up for a jumper from just behind the free-throw line, much to the dismay of SU head coach Jim Boeheim.
“With 13 seconds to go, we wanted to get it to Tyler and drive the ball,” Boeheim said. “We’d just driven the ball for three baskets, and I don’t know why he settled for the jump shot. There was plenty of time. He had space. I’m not sure why.”
Boeheim snarled at Ennis as he walked toward the SU bench.
Moments later, Dyshawn Pierre would miss his second free throw, Christmas would snag the rebound and Ennis — after jetting up the court much like he did at Pittsburgh — would put up a potential game winner.
But the miracle never came.
The ball bounced out, and with it so did Syracuse’s chances at a national title. The miss also ended the collegiate careers of Fair and center Baye Moussa Keita, and possibly Ennis’ and Grant’s, as well.
“You think something good’s going to happen just because it always does,” Cooney said, “but the kid’s human.”
Syracuse started 25-0, lost its touch at the end of the season, then seemed to rediscover it against Western Michigan. Along the way, it grew accustomed to winning close games but that formula failed on the biggest stage.
This time, Syracuse couldn’t survive.
“We had a chance to win,” Ennis said, “and I think we’ve always had a chance to win. I can’t really ask for a better shot.”
Published on March 22, 2014 at 9:50 pm
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