As Tyler Ennis' potential game-winning 3-pointer sailed toward the rim Saturday night, everyone clad in orange had faith that the freshman who delivered so many clutch shots this season would come through one more time.
Jim Boeheim raised his arms in preparation to celebrate. Syracuse players jumped off the bench. Even Ennis back-pedaled down court just like he did a month earlier when he beat Pittsburgh at the buzzer.
This time Ennis could not save the Orange. His shot clanged hard off the back rim, ending third-seeded Syracuse's once-promising season, sealing Dayton's 55-53 round of 32 victory and giving birth to the Sweet 16's first Cinderella. The 11th-seeded Flyers advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1984 and will play in Memphis against either second-seeded Kansas or 10th-seeded Stanford.
Outlasting every other Atlantic 10 team and reaching the second weekend of the NCAA tournament is a remarkable feat for a Dayton program that needed a late surge just to make the field of 68 at all.
Entering February, Dayton was 1-5 in the Atlantic 10 after January losses to Saint Louis, Richmond, VCU, Rhode Island and St. Joseph's. The Flyers have lost only twice since then, a surge that can be attributed to a balanced offense led by Ohio State transfer Jordan Sibert, a defense that has improved dramatically in February and March and an ability to finish off tight games.
Experience in nine games decided by five points or less during the regular season helped Dayton survive two more in Buffalo. The Flyers first ousted in-state rival Ohio State on a Vee Sanford go-ahead runner with less than four seconds to go Thursday afternoon, then they held off the Orange's furious final charge two nights later.
When Sibert sank the last of a flurry of huge late Dayton 3-pointers from well behind the arc on the right wing, the Flyers led by six with 47 seconds to go and appeared to be on the verge of sealing their victory. Instead Syracuse made them sweat, Ennis cutting the lead to three on a driving 3-point play on the ensuing possession, Devin Oliver missing a key free throw and then the Orange forcing a turnover with their pressure on an inbound pass.
The result was Ennis having not one but two chances to win the game with the ball in his hands. The first resulted in a go-ahead pull-up jump shot that was off the mark. The second ended with his running pull-up 3-pointer also going begging as time expired.
Ennis will probably be second-guessed for not attacking the rim in either instance, but it's hard to put too much blame on his shoulders. The freshman had to take 21 shots and do most of the work for the Orange because nobody but him and C.J. Fair were even remotely effective offensively.
It was fitting to see Syracuse fall in this manner because a punchless offense is exactly what short-circuited a promising season that began with the Orange reeling off 25 consecutive wins. In all of the Orange's losses since then, they've shot below 40 percent from the field, a trend that continued Saturday with Syracuse shooting at a 38.6 percent clip against the Flyers and going 0-for-10 from behind the arc.
Why did Syracuse's offense go in the tank? Trevor Cooney's month-long shooting slump left the Orange without a single threat from behind the arc, Jerami Grant struggled with a back injury and no scorers emerged from a thin bench. As a result, Ennis and Cooney shouldered too great a load and their shooting percentages suffered because of it.
Dayton took advantage Saturday. Now the Atlantic 10 has a team in the second week of the tournament, Archie Miller is a hot name on the coaching carousel and the Sweet 16 has its first underdog story.
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