Peyton Siva's interior pass intended for Gorgui Dieng was knocked away in the final seconds and Dion Waiters recovered it for Syracuse as the Orange crushed Louisville's hopes for a seventh straight win – and eighth in a row in the series – with a 52-51 victory Monday night in front of 22,738 fans at the KFC Yum! Center.
"It was a defensive battle and they came up with the plays at the end," said UofL coach Rick Pitino, whose team was held scoreless the final 3 minutes, 37 seconds of the game. "We're very disappointed with this loss, there are no moral victories. We are crushed by this loss - absolutely crushed. We didn't get the job done when we should have."
The Cardinals actually had a chance for a game-winning shot after Waiters missed the first free throw of a one-and-one situation, Dieng rebounded and Louisville called timeout with 1.1 seconds to play. However freshman Angel Nunez, who hadn't played all game, fumbled the ensuing in-bounds pass at midcourt and the Cards couldn't get off a final shot.
The game between the Orange (26-1, 13-1 in the Big East), who are ranked No. 2 in both national polls, and UofL (20-6, 8-5), which is No. 18 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll and No. 19 in the AP Top 25, didn't come down to that lack of a final shot. Instead it was decided at the free throw line, where the Cards were just 12 for 21 (57.1 percent), and by the first-half foul trouble of Siva, who picked up three whistles against him in the first 13:09. The latter was especially hard on the Cards, who jumped out to an early 12-5 lead in large part thanks to the penetration of Siva.
"We have handled their zone really well in the past couple of years because we had multiple guys dribble penetrate," Pitino said. "Tonight we only had one able to do it and then he took himself out of the game. But, when it comes down to it, it is very simple, we didn't make free throws – that is what is so bothersome to me. Not that we didn't lose to a good basketball team, but (shooting) 12 for 21 with the amount of time we spend on it is inexcusable. So I am very disappointed in the loss. It meant a lot for us to win all the (Big East) home games, but we didn't get the job done."
Instead UofL, which had virtually saved its season with six consecutive victories, dropped its second Big East home game of the season (the first was in double overtime Jan. 7 against Notre Dame) and dropped into sole possession of sixth-place in the Big East standings.
Siva scored all eight of his points – an accounted for 10 of the Cards' first 13 points - in the first 9:40 of the game.
He scored the first basket of the game off a feed from Dieng, then followed that up with a layup off a drive. Following a Syracuse three-pointer Siva fed freshman Chane Behanan, who led Louisville with 16 points, for a two-hand dunk. Syracuse's Fab Melo and Behanan traded dunks before Dieng hit 1 of 2 free throws, then Siva knocked down a three-pointer to give the Cards their largest lead – 12-5.
C.J. Fair, who led Syracuse with 13 points off the bench, scored on a scoop shot before Siva hit 1 of 2 free throws to make it 13-7 with 10:20 to play in the first half.
A short time later, however, Siva picked up his second and third fouls within 24 seconds of each other. He left with 6:51 remaining in the first half and Louisville leading 13-11.
Without Siva the Cards struggled to get into the heart of the Orange's defense. Sophomore Russ Smith tried to step in for Siva, but other than hitting three free throws after being fouled on a three-pointer he tried too hard (four turnovers in seven minutes).
Still Louisville led 24-22 at halftime thanks to frigid shooting by Syracuse, which went 8 for 27 (29.6 percent) from the field in the first 20 minutes. The Cards could've had a larger lead at intermission, but they were just 2 of 6 (33.3 percent) from the foul line after going 13 for 15 in their victory at West Virginia this past Saturday.
Sophomore Elisha Justice started the second half in Siva's place as UofL continued to hang onto the lead. Eventually, though, the Orange got rolling.
Syracuse scored seven straight points – six coming on layups or dunks – to take a 32-30 lead with 16:02 to play.
Kyle Kuric answered with a 3-pointer for the Cards, but that was his only basket of the game. Kuric, who scored 23 in Louisville's win over Syracuse last February and 22 against the then top-ranked Orange in the final game at Freedom Hall, finished with three points on 1 of 8 shooting,
"We were going to play Kuric the whole game," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "He's averaging 30 against us for his career. He's not all Big East against us, he's All-American. We forgot him one time and he made a three, we were going to make sure we played him.
"Rick's teams are very good against the zone. He's the best zone coach. He's great at attacking zones and they've had really good shooters. I think (Preston) Knowles really hurt us (the previous years), sometimes you don't realize how valuable one guy might be and I thought he was very valuable against us. It seems like him and (Kyle) Kuric made big shots against us the last couple years. I thought our defense reacted a little better tonight than we have."
The Orange outscored the Cards 12-3 after Kuric's three-pointer to lead 44-36 with 7:33 to play. Siva returned to the lineup during Syracuse's surge and after it ended he helped UofL go on a 15-2 run.
It began with a Behanan dunk that was followed by a Chris Smith three-pointer from Siva. Brandon Triche interrupted the run for Syracuse, but the Cards scored 10 straight.
Behanan scored inside off an assist from Siva, then Dieng hit a layup that turned into an old-fashioned three-point play. Smith followed with another three, again from Siva, before Behanan capped the run with a one-hand rebound tip-in to give Louisville a 51-46 lead with 3:38 to play.
However those were the Cards' final points of the game. Triche hit a jumper, then Melo knocked down two free throws before Fair's layup gave Syracuse the lead with 2:11 to play.
Dieng turned the ball over on UofL's ensuing possession before a miss by Waiters gave the ball back to the Cards. Chris Smith, though, missed a difficult reverse layup before Waiters missed again with 30 seconds left to give the ball back to Louisville.
Pitino elected not to call a timeout before the play in which Siva drove down the left side of the lane and tried to flip a pass back to Dieng.
"We had the play, we went over the play in the timeout before," Pitino said. "They like to trap out of it. We diagrammed the play before, but we just took the wrong option."
Then after Waiters' missed free throw Nunez couldn't get off a final shot.
"That is a play we run every single day in practice," Pitino said. "Do you figure a lot of teams make that shot with one second to go? Have you seen it? He (Nunez) is not cold. We had to get a halfcourt shot and I trust Angel. A lot of guys don't practice that shot. We do, we practice it every day, hundreds of times."
Practice didn't pay off, though.
Louisville next plays at DePaul, a homecoming game for freshman Wayne Blackshear, at noon Saturday. The freshman forward, who made a sparkling season-debut at West Virginia (13 points), went scoreless in six first-half minutes against the Orange.
"He doesn't really know what we are trying to do defensively right now," Pitino said. "I went with the veterans because it was a very low scoring game. I mean, don't get too excited about what Wayne did the other night. A guy comes in on his first night and has a good night, and then reality sets in. He still doesn't know what we do offensively and defensively, nor should he know that. Don't get carried away. We are trying to get him ready for the DePaul game, get him some practices. This was not his kind of game, or Russ Smith's for that matter."
The Cards follow up DePaul with a road game at Cincinnati next Thursday night before back-to-back home games against Pittsburgh and South Florida before finishing their regular season at Syracuse on March 3.
"The only thing that will erase this loss is to beat them up there," Pitino said at the close of his press conference.
NOTE: There was no explanation given by Pitino for the absence of freshman Kevin Ware on the UofL bench.