Junior forward Kyle Kuric (a.k.a. The Orange Crusher) scored a game-high 23 points to carry the Cardinals to their seventh straight victory over Syracuse - 73-69 in front of 22,755 at he KFC Yum! Center.
Senior guard Preston Knowles added 22 points - including a buzzer-beating three-pointer that capped a first-half finishing 21-4 surge - for UofL (19-6, 8-4 in the Big East) which moved into a third-place tie Georgetown (8-4) in the conference. Villanova, which has a 7-4 record in the Big East hosts Pittsburgh on Saturday night.
But despite their first-half finishing flourish, and their sold second half start, the Cards (No. 16 in the Associated Press Top 25 and No. 15 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll) had to hang on against the Orange (20-6, 7-6), who are No. 12 in AP and No. 13 in ESPN/USA Today. Syracuse trimmed Louisville's lead to three late, but the Cards converted 3 of 5 free throws for the win.
"The fun thing about coaching this basketball team is their hearts, their guts," UofL coach Rick Pitino said. "I think in 10 years I've had a Final Four team, I've had the No. 1 seeds, but I think this is the fans' favorite team in the 10 years I've been here. The reason is, they don't get down. Down 18 (against Marquette), they don't get down. Whatever the points are they just keep playing hard. Everybody keeps playing hard. You can see they are not as talented as the No. 1 seed (team), you can see they're not as good as some of the players on the Final Four teams, but you can see the heart every time they play."
The Cards, who had sophomore forward Rakeem Buckles back in the starting lineup after a 12-game absence, hit five of their first eight three-point tries to take a 17-15 lead nine minutes into the game.
The Orange, though, outscored UofL 11-2 over the next 5 ½ minutes to take a 26-19 lead 5:45 before halftime.
But that's when Louisville, wearing throwback uniforms to honor the 1986 national championship team that was honored at intermission, got hot.
UofL tallied 10 straight points. Terrence Jennings had back-to-back rebound baskets, then hit two free throws before Knowles hit one foul shot, then a corner three to make it 29-26. Syracuse's C.J. Fair hit two free throws before Knowles and Kuric hit back-to-back threes, then Peyton Siva dunked home a steal to make it 37-28.
"It was quick ball movement and inside-outside (play)," Pitino said of his team's surge that actually brought Syracuse out of its trademark 2-3 zone.
Scoop Jardine, who scored 12 first-half points, hit a layup with seven seconds left in the first half, but that turned out to be too much time. Knowles buried a 25-footer at the buzzer to give Louisville a 40-30 lead.
"It was a great momentum builder for us," said Jennings, who finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and four steals.
The junior big man proved that by scoring the first five points of the second half on a layup, a dunk and a free throw.
Rick Jackson - Syracuse's second-leading scorer (13.1 points per game coming in) - answered with his first points before the Cards went on a 12-5 surge.
Kuric and Jennings hit back-to-back jumpers, then Kuric hit a layup before Knowles and Kuric hit back-to-back threes to make it 57-37 with 15:29 to play.
It was the fourth three-pointer for Kuric, who also hit four from long range against the Orange in the Freedom Hall finale.
"I don't know how to explain it, it was penetration and open shots," Kuric said of his sizzling shooting against Syracuse.
Louisville still led by 18 with 11 ½ minutes left before Syracuse started its comeback. The Orange outscored UofL 20-5 over the next 10 minutes. The Cards' only points in that span were by a two-pointer and a three-pointer by Kuric, who once again let his play do his talking for him.
He has averaged 18.8 points per game over his last five games, including a career-high 28 at Notre Dame, where he was whistled for a controversial technical foul ("I didn't say anything, I may have stared at him for a second, but that was it," Kuric maintained after the game).
The Cards then hit a few free throws to hold off the Orange.
"We had a bad end to the first half," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "We talked about not letting Kuric and Knowles shoot, and those were the two guys that we let shoot. The second half we did a good job fighting them and then letting other guys score and getting right back in the game, and made a great effort to come back. But it's tough when you're 20 down on the road to come all the way back."
Buckles had no points, but did have seven rebounds to go along with five turnovers in 14 minutes in his return.
"It felt good to be out there, I had a lot of fun," said Buckles, who missed the previous 12 games with a broken index finger on his left hand in practice the day before the Kentucky New Year's Eve game.
"We'll get him back in the next game," Pitino said. "I'm really, really excited."