Published January 13, 2015
Syracuse had a huge lead in the second half and was in perfect position to say goodbye to the Big East with a bang.
It all slipped away so fast.
Lightning fast, like those Louisville guards.
In their final Big East appearance before bolting to the ACC next season, the 19th-ranked Orange wilted against Louisville's relentless pressure defense and squandered a 16-point advantage during a 78-61 defeat in the conference championship game Saturday night.
It was by far the biggest collapse in title game history at the Big East tournament, which began in 1980.
Not exactly how longtime coach Jim Boeheim and fifth-seeded Syracuse, a conference power from beginning to end, wanted to leave.
After it was over and the Cardinals had secured their second consecutive tournament championship, Boeheim was asked what he was thinking as he walked off the court at Madison Square Garden.
"Just how badly we handled their pressure was the only thing I was thinking about, and we've got to get ready and get to the airport," said Boeheim, hardly in the mood for nostalgia.
"Those were the two thoughts I had. All of the other stuff I've been thinking about for two years, and I said it all. I'm not going to repeat it all again tonight."
Peyton Siva had 11 points and eight assists to lead No. 4 Louisville (29-5).
The second-seeded Cardinals won their third title in five years by taking charge with a 27-3 run after James Southerland's 3-pointer put Syracuse (26-9) up 45-29 with 15:48 to play. It took them less than six minutes to wipe out the deficit, and they took their first lead of the game at 49-48 with 9:50 remaining.
"We didn't make some smart plays at the end," Southerland said. "We didn't take advantage of our lead and move the ball around like we should have."
Louisville kept pouring it on, creating 20 turnovers with its full-court press. In a flash, the Cardinals were up by 18 with 2:03 to go after outscoring the rattled Orange 44-10 in a span of nearly 14 minutes.
"It was probably the worst thing to happen to get up 15," Boeheim said. "If we hadn't played well and we were up four or five, they probably wouldn't have done that. But that's what they had to do at that point to go after it, and that was exactly what I would have tried to do, and that's what they did, and they're good at it."
Siva joined Georgetown center Patrick Ewing in 1984 and 1985 as the only repeat tournament MVP selections.
"I don't know how I am in the same sentence as Patrick Ewing," he said.
Louisville, which shared the regular-season championship with Georgetown and Marquette, won its 10th straight game.
Syracuse was hoping to leave New York with its sixth Big East tournament title before it heads down to Tobacco Road.
The Cardinals will join the Orange in the ACC the following season, but it was this game that signified the end of the current Big East era.
Seven basketball-centric Catholic schools are breaking off to form a new conference next season. They will keep the Big East name and are expected to continue playing their league tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Early on, it appeared it was going to be a Syracuse romp to the final title. The Orange scored the game's first eight points and took a 35-22 halftime lead.
"First half, I had to jump our guys pretty hard at halftime," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, an assistant under Boeheim in the late 1970s before the Big East was formed.
The first 10 points of Louisville's big run came in a span of 1:34, thanks in part to several free throws. The Cardinals just wouldn't let Syracuse get comfortable in any facet of the game — from bringing the ball up against the pressure to trying to find a clean look in their halfcourt set.
"I thought that they were the best team in the league from the beginning of the year, and they proved that today," Boeheim said. "I think they're the best pressing team that I've seen this year."
When the Orange did manage to get to the foul line, they didn't help themselves, shooting 46 percent (12 for 26).
C.J. Fair scored 21 points for Syracuse. Michael Carter-Williams had 11 points and nine assists, and Brandon Triche added 10 points.
"Defensively, we were fine. We lost the game against their pressure," Boeheim said. "They had 32 points off turnovers. They didn't have many points off our defense."
It wasn't the first time the Cardinals climbed out of a big hole against Syracuse in this game. They were down by nine before beating the Orange for the 2009 tournament championship.
"Peyton said, 'You doubt us.' I said, 'I didn't doubt you. I really didn't. But I had to wake you guys up. If I swear they would have heard a lot of cuss words. Thank God I don't swear," Pitino said, drawing laughs.
Montrezl Harrell led Louisville with 20 points while Russ Smith and Luke Hancock both had 10. Gorgui Dieng had nine points, nine rebounds and eight assists for the Cardinals, who won their 10th straight game.
"Syracuse has been my Kryptonite for the last couple of years, and I didn't think we'd play them again," Siva said. "Coach had the confidence to leave me in the game this time, and I didn't want to let him down. My shots weren't falling, so I tried to attack, and Montrezl finished a lot of my assists."
Syracuse shot 40.8 percent and Louisville had 11 steals, including four by Siva, who became the school's career leader in that category Friday night.
He tied the Big East tournament record with seven steals against Notre Dame in the semifinals.
"Our press is pretty much like controlled chaos," Siva said. "For a minute there, we were running around the court with our head cut off and got a couple of steals.
"For the most part, we tried to pressure their guards. Michael Carter-Williams did an excellent job handling the pressure, but at the end we tried to wear him down, wear him down. And it took effect later in the game. They were hot in 3-point shooting in the first half. Second half not so much, and that was really big for us."
Syracuse leaves the Big East tied with Georgetown for the most conference tournament wins at 78.
"Jim and I both know — we hope we can coach as long as we can coach, but we're never going to do in the Big East," Pitino said. "To come back like that tonight, it shows tremendous heart. I'm really excited for them they can be part of basketball history."