Published March 10, 2012
NEW YORK – This year's Big East championship will have a slight midwestern accent and a touch of a southern twang.
Neither first-time finalist Cincinnati nor seventh-seeded Louisville was in the league eight years ago. But they'll be front and center Saturday night when they play for the conference crown at Madison Square Garden.
"I think Conference USA has come to the Big Apple," Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said.
Cincinnati and Louisville both joined the Big East for the 2005-06 season, though their tournament experiences have hardly been the same. The Bearcats had never advanced beyond the quarterfinals before this year, yet they looked right at home in the spotlight Friday night.
Sean Kilpatrick keyed an early 3-point barrage and scored 18 points to help fourth-seeded Cincinnati hold on for a 71-68 upset of No. 2 Syracuse. In the second semifinal, Peyton Siva produced another near-flawless floor game and Louisville dominated No. 23 Notre Dame 64-50 to reach the title game for the third time in four years.
The championship matchup — between two unranked teams — will be the first Big East final without at least one original league member. The Cardinals lost at Cincinnati 60-56 on Feb. 23.
"I walked in the locker room and the guys had written 'We need to win one more' on the board. I didn't even have to write it," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said.
The top-seeded Orange (31-2) began the day with an 11-game winning streak. Yancy Gates and the Bearcats (24-9) ended it with a dazzling shooting performance in the opening 14 minutes, taking a 17-point lead before holding on when Syracuse got within one in the final seconds.
"It's a huge win for our program," Cronin said. "I think what you've got to realize in college basketball is, you've got to allow teams the course of the season. Some teams get better."
Now, a squad that made headlines early in the season for a brawl against intra-city rival Xavier and sunk as low as losing at home to Presbyterian, has its seventh win over a ranked team this season, the most in the country.
Gates was one of four Cincinnati players suspended for the December fight with Xavier. He missed six games for throwing a blindside punch in the fracas. That all seems a long time ago.
The senior big man scored 18 points for Cincinnati, which rebounded from one of its worst 3-point efforts in the quarterfinals against No. 13 Georgetown with one of its best against the Orange.
Dion Waiters had 28 points for Syracuse, which closed within 69-68 with 5.4 seconds left when he made two free throws — even though he was trying to miss the second. Justin Jackson was all alone when he dunked with 1 second remaining for a three-point lead and Waiters' desperation heave from beyond midcourt was off at the buzzer.
"No matter who you're playing, the top half of our league, the game is never over," Cronin said. "Obviously it's like a home game for them, which makes the win even sweeter for us."
The sellout crowd of 20,057, which included plenty of orange, came alive as Syracuse chipped away at the lead. The loss shouldn't hurt the Orange's chances of being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but it did keep them from getting an opportunity to play for a sixth Big East title and first since 2006.
It was the second straight year Syracuse lost in the semifinals. Connecticut beat the Orange 76-71 in overtime last season on its way to the tournament title.
"We've won 31 games, and we've proven what we can do and we've got to get back and we have to play a little better from the beginning," coach Jim Boeheim said. "Most national championships, not all, but a lot of them, have been won by teams that lose in their conference tournament, including us. So as much as we want to win this tournament, the tournament that starts next week is the only one that matters. Nothing else matters anymore in college basketball."
Louisville had a much easier time with No. 3 seed Notre Dame.
Gorgui Dieng scored 16 points, Kyle Kuric added 12 and the cat-quick Cardinals (25-9) held the Fighting Irish without a field goal for the final 12:42 in the first half while closing on a 26-4 run. Siva, perhaps the singular star of the tournament so far, had 13 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.
"Coach P told us before we got in the Big East, just forget about the regular season, that we're starting a new season now," Siva said. "Everybody really bought into that. Everybody really bought into defense on this team, and everybody was really feeding off that."
Louisville, looking for its second tournament title, denied Notre Dame again in its quest to make the championship game for the first time. The Fighting Irish (22-11) fell to 0-5 in the semifinal round — all under coach Mike Brey.
Notre Dame shot 2 for 17 (12 percent) from 3-point range and 36 percent overall. The only Big East team to reach the tournament semifinals each of the last three years, the Irish were knocked out by Louisville last season as well, losing 83-77 in overtime after taking a 16-point lead in the first half.
"We had another chance tonight to do something we haven't done in our program before," said junior Jack Cooley, who had 11 points and 11 rebounds. "It's a pretty big disappointment, but we've just got to move on to the next tournament. The next one next week is the biggest one in the whole season, so that's what we've got to focus on now."
The Cardinals, who won the 2009 title, shot 56 percent from the field, their best mark in a Big East tournament game.
The blowout was a bit of a surprise if only because the Irish and Cardinals have played such close contests in recent years.
The previous four games between the teams — and five of the past six — went to overtime. The schools split those four meetings, with two going to double OT, including Notre Dame's 67-65 victory at Louisville on Jan. 7.
But with Siva running the show in Louisville's new lightweight, neon-orange uniforms, Pitino easily improved to 41-13 in conference tournaments. He goes for his 10th title Saturday night after losing to Connecticut 69-66 in last season's final.
"We've wanted to get to this championship game again," Pitino said. "We lost it last year in a very close battle, and now we get the opportunity to play for it again, and it's a great opportunity."