NEW YORK -- In any other Big East Tournament, the story on Saturday night would have been the coronation. The Big East regular-season champion came to New York and took home the tournament championship, winning all three games by double-digits and capping each of the last two games with emphatic second halves.
But, despite Louisville's 76-66 win over Syracuse on Saturday night, one in which the Cardinals overcame a 38-30 halftime deficit, everyone who watched this event will come away remembering Syracuse.
"Five years from now, there's going to be two things people remember about this Syracuse basketball team," said Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, already having gained perspective. "They're going to remember the Connecticut-Syracuse [game] here and going to remember what we did in this tournament. That's all they'll remember."
For a half, the Orange looked like it could do the unthinkable and capture the Big East title despite playing 115 minutes of basketball in the previous two nights. The Orange's first-half offensive performance was clinical, especially considering the competition was one of the nation's best defenses.
In 32 first-half possessions, Syracuse scored 38 points, thanks primarily to fantastic shooting. Syracuse hit 11-of-20 2's and 5-of-10 3's for an amazing 61.7 percent eFG. There was no sign of weary legs as Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins combined for five 3-pointers. Devendorf would finish with a game-high 20 points and set a Big East Tournament record with 84 points.
And as the shots fell, Louisville's devastating press didn't seem to bother Syracuse much either. The Orange actually had more points off turnovers (11) than Louisville did (10) in the first 20 minutes.
"The first half we played as well as we played down here on both ends, defensively especially," said Boeheim, whose team held Louisville to 30 points on 32 possessions. "I just thought we did a great job defensively in the first half."
But, as Villanova found out on Friday night when it led by eight, the halftime score means very little when Louisville outscored the top-10 Wildcats, 43-21, in the second half of a 14-point victory. On Saturday night, Louisville's last 20 minutes weren't quite so dominant, but they were just as effective. The Cards outscored Syracuse, 46-28, to win by 10, and the final margin doesn't reflect that Louisville was in control for most of the half. Syracuse got no closer than seven after Terrence Williams' left-wing 3-pointer made the score 54-45 with 13:16 to play.
Syracuse's zone defense was not as active in the second half, and Louisville had its choice of scoring methods. There were 3-pointers -- Louisville hit 6-of-13 in the second half; there were 2-pointers -- Louisville hit 8-of-10; and there were points off turnovers -- Louisville outscored Syracuse, 8-3, in the second half.
It really would have taken an other-worldly performance for Syracuse to defeat this Louisville team that had the size, quickness and playing style to exploit the Orange's fatigue. Even with both teams completely fresh, Louisville is probably five points better than Syracuse, so the difference figured to be and was greater than five on Saturday.
What really hurt the Orange in the second half were the mental mistakes that come from fatigue. Jonny Flynn twice made lob passes over the Louisville press, and both times Williams stole the ball -- he had seven steals in the game -- and Louisville got points off each one.
"I wasn't even fatigued," said Flynn. "I was feeling actually pretty good out on the court today but just made too many mistakes, and we missed a lot of shots that we made in the first half."
Flynn may have been unwilling to excuse himself with fatigue, but it was telling that Boeheim decided to sit him for six minutes in the game, even subbing in little-used Justin Thomas at one point. Flynn was rightfully named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, but he scored just two points in the game's first 31 minutes. By the time he scored for the second time, his team was already down 11. Flynn still had 11 points and six assists to go along with just three turnovers in a solid performance, but Syracuse needed more than he could deliver after so much run in so little time.
For a player who had played 152 minutes over the previous three nights, to commit just three turnovers was remarkable and surely the envy of Corey Fisher and Scottie Reynolds, the two Villanova guards who combined for 13 turnovers in the Wildcats' semifinal loss to this same Louisville team. Syracuse's total of 17 turnovers was six fewer than Villanova's and nine fewer than Providence's against Louisville in the quarters.
"Our four guards do a heck of a job pressuring the other guards the whole game, and you may handle it for a short period, but, if you don't have a nice amount of point guards to handle the ball, it's going to get to them and wear [them] down," said Williams. "Even if you go by the guards, the back pursues and the forwards level them off and really slow them down in the second half."
"It's non-stop," said Flynn of Louisville's pressure defense. "To put it so you can understand it, it's like being chased by eight pit bulls, and you just got to keep running for your life. Rick Pitino does a great job of rotating fresh bodies in, and you just don't have a chance to stop."
But even if the pit bulls didn't catch Flynn as often as they did Louisville's previous opponents, Syracuse's legs finally caught up to the team with poor shooting. Louisville clamped down on defense, but the Orange couldn't even hit those open looks it got. After the 61.7 percent eFG in the scorching first half, Syracuse shot 36.7 percent eFG and missed all eight 3-point attempts in the last 20 minutes.
"One big key for us, besides the pressure [defense], besides the passing is stop the three, make the three," said Louisville head coach Rick Pitino. "And if you look at our run, since we've been hot, the disparity from the 3-point you're looking at sometimes 30-15 [points]. I don't think the 3-point is a weapon unless you stop it."
Louisville did indeed outscore Syracuse, 30-15, from the 3-point line in the game, 18-0 in the second half. That 18-point differential was the margin between Louisville and Syracuse in the half.
The epitome of the scattershot second half was one possession with the Orange down by just three and 15 minutes still remaining. First, Devendorf missed a 3-pointer, but the rebound went out of bounds to the Orange. Then, Rautins missed an open 3-point look, but Arinze Onuaku got the rebound, which led to another missed Rautins 3-pointer, this one from the top of the key. Rautins got his own rebound and found Devendorf in the corner, but he missed that three. Paul Harris got this rebound and found Rautins again, but for the third time on the possession, Rautins missed a 3-pointer. This time, Jerry Smith grabbed the rebound from the missed 3-pointer. From the time of the Rautins miss, Louisville went on a 14-6 run over the next five minutes to open the lead to 11.
"We made a couple bad turnovers, and they converted them, and I think there was just a point where we got the three, four open looks and, you know, couldn't [hit]. You have to make shots against them," said Boeheim. "They're going to gamble, and you're going to get some open shots, and you have to make them. And when you don't, they're going to score on the other end."
While Syracuse's players set tournament scoring and minutes-played records and won the tournament's Most Outstanding Player Award, Louisville simply won the tournament with devastating defense and balanced offense. Against Syracuse, Louisville had six players score between 10 and 15 points. There is no one player to stop or take away. Williams led the team with six assists, but his was primarily his defense that got him on the All-Tournament Team. Earl Clark filled the stat sheet with 13 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals. The 6-foot-9 junior also made the All-Tournament Team.
It was a season in which Louisville flew under the radar as Pittsburgh and Connecticut battled for the top spot in the Big East. All the Cardinals did was win 16 of 18 conference games to erase the memories of three pre-conference losses, and then they came to New York and finally saw success. In Pitino's first three Big East Tournaments at Louisville, the Cardinals went just 1-3 here. But, after four years in the Big East, they can finally say that they've conquered the nation's top conference.
"These guys have just bought into total team," said Pitino. "They all want to do what they can do, but winning is the most important thing. These guys [Andre McGee and Terrence Williams] have been a part of it. Terrence can do anything on the court. Andre McGee averaged 30 points a game in high school. They know we're going to win and sacrifice and play."