Notre Dame will be headed for the Atlantic Coast Conference next season with a big hole in its Big East resume — no championship game appearance.
The Fighting Irish made their fourth straight semifinal appearance on Friday night only to lose again and for the third straight time it was to Louisville, this time 69-57 in another strong defensive effort by the Cardinals.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey had spoken so many times over the last four years about making it to Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
"I'm very disappointed we could never get to Saturday," Brey said. "I'm thrilled we played in the semis on such a magical night here.
"So a little bit of unfinished business but we'll get over it quickly and get ready to prepare for next week," he said, referring to the NCAA tournament.
Russ Smith scored 20 points and Peyton Siva added 12 to lead Louisville, the defending champions.
"It's very exciting to be in another final game, especially the last year of existence in the Big East," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "So we're very excited."
Siva, the tournament MVP last year when Louisville won its second Big East title, had six assists and seven steals, which tied the tournament record in another solid defensive outing by the Cardinals.
"I just felt we were in a couple of bad places at one time, and Peyton Siva kept bailing us out one rotation after another," Pitino said. "He's just an incredible player."
Second-seeded Louisville (28-5), one of the Big East's tri-champions in the regular season, will face fifth-seeded and 19th-ranked Syracuse in the championship game Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. The Orange (26-8) beat top-seeded and fifth-ranked Georgetown 58-55 in overtime in the semifinals.
This will be Louisville's fourth championship game appearance in the last five years. The Cardinals also won the title in 2009 and they beat Syracuse in that game.
"I hope we own it tomorrow," Siva said of the Cardinals' recent success in the tournament. "I think around this time of year Coach really pushes us to bring our game to a higher level."
Jack Cooley and Jerian Grant both had 14 points for sixth-seeded Notre Dame (25-9).
And now the Fighting Irish are headed to the ACC where Syracuse and Pittsburgh will join them next season and Louisville will join them in 2014-15.
"I can't say enough about the Big East. I don't think it's really hit me yet," Brey said, getting a little choked up. "The Big East has kind of made me. I've always said I've been as proud of being a Big East guy as I am a Notre Dame guy. We'll miss that."
The Cardinals, who reached the Final Four last season, did what they have done so well in their nine-game winning streak, play defense at a level Pitino's teams usually do at the end of the season. In the first eight games of the winning streak Louisville held its opponents to 54.2 points on 36.4 percent shooting from the field while forcing 17.9 turnovers with 10.4 of them being steals.
Friday night looked the same.
Notre Dame shot 36.5 percent from the field (19 of 52), including going 7 of 21 from 3-point range. In their wins over Rutgers and Marquette the Irish went 17 of 37 from beyond the arc (45.9 percent). Notre Dame committed 16 turnovers and with Siva leading the way the Cardinals had 11 steals.
Siva became Louisville's career steals leader on Friday, passing one of the school's legendary players, Darrell Griffith from the "Doctors of Dunk."
"People keep telling me not to back up and keep running aggressive and that's what I try to do," he said in explaining his ability to force steals. "The ball just came to me tonight. It's as easy as that."
Gorgui Dieng had eight points, 12 rebounds and four blocks for Louisville.
This was Louisville's second win over Notre Dane this season. The Irish won 104-101 in an epic five-overtime game, while the Cardinals also won at home, 73-57.
"I love that we fought back and had some chances but just probably too many turnovers at key times," Brey said. "That's what they do. They impose their will on us too much to really close the gap or think we could win it. They're very good. I'm very impressed with them."
Louisville had five players score in a 10-3 run to close the first half that gave the Cardinals a 32-25 lead.
The Cardinals gave themselves some breathing room with another 10-3 run capped by Luke Hancock's 3-pointer that made it 55-44 with 4:09 to play.
"Their pressure on the full court started us off going fast, and by the time we got settled in our offense, there wasn't a lot of time left on the clock," Cooley said. "Putting that pressure on it kind of helped to eliminate some of the post feeds we were getting the first two games. All their defense stems from their pressure. "