LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville honored the 25th anniversary of its 1986 national championship on Saturday, reveling in its past with a raucous celebration that rattled off the rafters at the KFC Yum! Center and stirred the echoes of the program's glory days.
Turns out, the present is pretty good too.
Kyle Kuric scored 23 points, Preston Knowles added 22 and Peyton Siva dropped in the clinching free throws in the final moments to lead the 16th-ranked Cardinals past slumping No. 12 Syracuse 73-69.
"We don't get down," coach Rick Pitino said. "(Director of basketball operations) Ralph (Willard) told me this was going to be a tough year (but) we've had some surprises along the way. We really haven't had a bad game in the Big East."
Syracuse, can't say the same.
Brandon Triche led the Orange (20-6, 7-6 Big East) with a season-high 21 points and Scoop Jardine had 20 points and four assists but Syracuse couldn't quite erase a 20-point second-half deficit to lose for the sixth time in its last eight games.
"It's tough when you're (20) down on the road to come all the way back," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "We made a great effort and got our offense going and did some good things on the defensive end, but you can't get that far behind."
The Orange pulled within three points twice late but Louisville (19-6, 8-4) survived thanks to clutch free throws from Siva and Chris Smith.
"We're used to close games," said Siva, who finished eight points, six assists and three steals.
And they're used to winning them. Louisville improved to 5-1 in games decided by four points or less. The Cardinals, facing a significant size disadvantage even with the Orange playing without 7-foot freshman Fab Melo, whom Boeheim said is "done playing for now" after missing practice. Louisville made 13 of 27 3-pointers to beat Syracuse for the seventh straight time.
Pitino worried his team was on the verge of collapse after squeaking by with a patchwork lineup in recent weeks.
The Cardinals are as healthy as they have been all season after the return of power forward Rakeem Buckles, who missed six weeks with a broken left index finger. His return gave Louisville's frontline a much-needed boost following a draining overtime loss at No. 8 Notre Dame on Wednesday.
"I felt good, I had a lot of fun out there," Buckles said. "But I'm nowhere close to where I need to be. I've got to get back, get better."
While Buckles was hardly spectacular, turning it over five times in 14 minutes, he didn't have to be. He left that up to Kuric and Knowles.
Knocking down shots from all over the court, the duo helped Louisville build a 57-37 lead with 15:23 remaining.
Syracuse, however, dug in behind Triche. The Orange ripped off eight straight points in the next 90 seconds to get back in it then slowly chiseled away as Louisville went cold and struggled to find any momentum in the halfcourt.
"It's hard to play with that kind of lead," Kuric said. "You try to ice it but you can't do that. You've got to keep looking and keep attacking."
The Orange went on a 20-5 burst over a 9-minute stretch, pulling within 69-66 on a layup by Triche. Louisville managed to steady itself in the face of Syracuse's halfcourt trapping, eventually drawing enough fouls to get to the line.
Smith hit two free throws with 28 seconds remaining to put the Cardinals up 71-66. Triche took a deep 3-pointer from the top of the key that banked off the backboard then rolled around the rim before falling out. Siva made a free throw to push the lead to six before Jardine hit a 3 to get the Orange within 72-69.
Siva made one more at the line with 6 seconds left then collected a loose ball at midcourt to help the Cardinals hold on.
"There was a lot at stake (today)," Pitino said. "I told them we've got to get this Syracuse game. ... This team keeps battling, keeps fighting to the end. Syracuse did a fantastic job coming back."
Still, it wasn't quite enough for the Orange to halt their bizarre late-season stumble. Louisville picked apart Syracuse's zone for easy baskets — finishing with 20 assists on 26 field goals — and there was a lack of urgency by the Orange until they were down a dozen.
"We left too big a hole for ourselves to get out of," Boeheim said.
Maybe it will help the Orange if they don't come the Louisville on a day of celebration. The Cardinals knocked off Syracuse last March in the final game at Freedom Hall, an emotional victory that provided one last signature moment at the old barn.
This time the Cardinals paid tribute to its last national championship, with several players returning for one more group hug and a standing ovation for Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum.
Pitino called that team one of the most beloved in program history, though he believes the current group may be his favorite since he took over for Crum a decade ago.
"We don't play with ego, they love playing with each other," Pitino said. "Ego kills potential. I've never coached but maybe one other team that played for what's on their jersey."
Syracuse controlled things early before Louisville came to life late in the first half, roaring past the Orange in the final 5:40 with a blistering 21-4 burst.
"Our press heated them up," Kuric said. "We got some turnovers, came down and got some open shots."
Jennings got the Cardinals rolling with two putbacks before Knowles got loose. He knocked down three 3-pointers during the run, including a 27-footer just before the horn that put Louisville up 40-30 at the break and had the Cardinals well on their way to another vital win in a season quickly becoming full of them.