Coming into Saturday’s matchup with North Carolina State, Syracuse was a frigid wasteland. The historic Carrier Dome was a towering, unyielding, concrete icebox.
For 39 minutes, the Orange and stud senior C.J. Fair had been tightly clenching a dream, one that wanted to be desperately ended by a surging Wolfpack squad that didn’t fly into central New York until the late afternoon. The impending snowstorm kept both teams chilled. Fair couldn’t buy a bucket.
The stars aligned against the Orange for what seemed like the third time in seven games. The third time they had to dig out a win. The third time someone had to play the role of the hero.
And in the 40th minute of a two-hour slugfest, Fair streaked down center court, receiving a pass from Tyler Ennis. The Dome’s 31,000 fanatics slowly rose. And the all-star senior’s fingers finally unfroze. His finger roll lay-in at the buzzer sent State packing.
Syracuse instantly seemed like a sauna. The concrete freezer that was the Dome melted into Floridian paradise. The 25th win in a celebrated season was never harder for a senior that had already won 112 contests under college basketball’s most winning coach.
“Of course it’s not your ideal win, but we’ll take it,” Fair said from his locker following his game-winner to put Syracuse past NC State 56-55 on Saturday night. “It starts with me, if I get things going early throughout the whole game, I make my teammates job easier. If I get going, our offense will be much better. That’s a big part of it. ”
And Ennis, the freshman guard that’s taken the NCAA by storm, knew it was Fair’s time in the spotlight and not his. Prior to Saturday, Ennis hit a game-winning 40-footer to give Syracuse the win over Pittsburgh on the road. This time, he gave up the rock instead.
“I saw C.J. running the floor,” Ennis said. “I just gave it up. I knew he was going to finish. I knew he wasn’t going to let anybody, no matter how big they were, stop him from scoring.”
In four years of college basketball, Fair has come a long way since his final days at Baltimore City College High School and lone stint at Brewster Academy. He’s always been a winner, only losing 21 times in 133 contests under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse University.
His younger years were similar. Under Mike Daniels at Baltimore City, the Black Knights were 18-6 his freshman season and 25-4 during his sophomore campaign when his team reached the Class 2A State North Region Semifinals. Fair became a First-Team All-Metro selection in his second season, but a knee injury sidelined him during his junior year.
That led him to Brewster Academy, a national powerhouse in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. There he went 35-5 under coach Jason Smith, claimed a National Prep Championship and was ranked a top-100 player in the Class of 2010 by Scout, Rivals and ESPN.com.
Four years later, he’s the face of Orange basketball. The surging senior is the preseason favorite to win ACC Player of the Year and is a preseason second-team All-American. Time may have moved forward, but not much has changed. Years of hard work made Fair a winner both on and off the basketball court.
“We don’t give up. That’s one thing we don’t do,” sophomore forward Jerami Grant said from his locker following Saturday’s game. “And C.J’s helped a lot. He’s been teaching me the ropes and teaching me the things I need to do on the court. He’s rubbing off on us. We expect [game-winners] from him, we expect to win the games at the end of them.”
But with a tough part of their schedule coming up, a matchup with a tough Boston College team and a rematch with Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Fair won’t call it quits on his sensational career just yet.
He’s not writing off his final six ACC opponents. Fair’s not thinking about the undefeated streak. The Baltimore, Maryland native is just gearing up for another tournament run to cap his legacy at Syracuse.
“I don’t think [that shot] solidifies my career yet,” Fair said. “It just adds on to my resume here and hopefully as the season goes on and we get more success. Hopefully we reach the Final Four again and that can help solidify my career here as it comes to an end.”
Yet whether Fair realizes it or not, his senior leadership is rubbing off. His teammates have started to rally around him and it’s making an impact on the younger players.
“We can always count on C.J. to make plays at the end of the game,” Ennis said. “From the day I got here, C.J. has been talking me through it. He’s one of the few guys that have been here for four years. He always knows what’s going on and how to handle things. I think he’s been more vocal this year than he has in the past.”
And Ennis was effusive when it came to Fair’s accomplishments in the ACC.
“He can pretty much score on any defense and anybody he plays,” Ennis continued. “[Fair’s] underrated defensively and rebounds a lot. He gets recognition but not nearly enough nationally.”
In a new collegiate basketball world, where the “one-and-done” mentality rules the recruiting boards, Boeheim found a gem in Baltimore’s inner city: a forward that fit the Syracuse mold. And more importantly, a four-year athlete that’s brought the university continued success.
Fair has turned that mentality on its head. He’s never been NBA ready until this moment, during this season, never attempting to make the lonely jump to the NBA a day or season too early.
Instead of leveling off, he’s worked hard, spent hours in the gym and become a legitimate draft pick option on the country’s best team. Leaving early isn’t always the best option for every player and Fair is proving it each game of his exciting senior season.
“I think you could see Fair last in the NBA,” one NBA scout told Dime following Saturday’s contest at the Carrier Dome.
“It’s been very impressive watching him shoulder such an increased scoring load over the past two seasons, and to be doing so on one of the best teams in the country says a lot for how he has grown as a player over four years at Syracuse. His skill level has improved so much over the past four years that it’s hard to count him out from making the transition successfully.”
“That being said,” the scout continued. “Fair’s role is going to change significantly at the NBA level, and much of the in-between game that he has improved so drastically won’t be quite as useful when he’s not the focal point of the offense. His set-shot started to show great improvement during his junior season, but to this point that hasn’t carried over to his senior year.”
With the clock winding down, N.C. State missed their final shots. Syracuse’s crowd came alive. The Dome erupted with elation.
And for the first time in his storied career, Fair–Boeheim’s offensive powerhouse–had done something he’d never accomplished in nearly 140 games in an Orange uniform.
One shot kept destiny on Syracuse’s side for one more night. One shot reignited a fan base. One shot added to the already packed storyline behind C.J. Fair, the unsung hero behind Syracuse basketball, the next big thing from Jim Boeheim’s camp of champions.
“I’m the best player in the ACC,” Fair said when asked following his game-winning shot. “Each game you try to show that your one of the top guys and sometimes it isn’t always your night, but you always want to have that presence.
“As far as me hitting the last shot to make us win in a crucial situation, this has never happened to me [at the Dome] in my career. It’s very exciting for myself and my teammates to know I was there to make the play to help us win.”
How good will Fair be in the NBA?
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