Sparked by a sensational second half from Kyle Kuric the Cards upset No. 1 Syracuse 78-68 in front of a record crowd of 20,135 mostly delirious, and red-clad, fans - including several former star players - in the final game of the team's 54-year residence in the arena.
The victory all but assured UofL, which will move to a new downtown arena next season, a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"Tonight I felt pressure for the first time as a coach because there were so many festivities and the guys coming back, and the NCAA berth being on the line against the number one team in the country and closing out Freedom Hall," UofL coach Rick Pitino said. "Last night I got up at about two in the morning and said, ‘What if we lose?' No bid, people going home very said. These guys came all this way and they have to go home. I just started thinking, and then I took a shot of bourbon...no, I'm just kidding.
"(But) it was a wonderful night. I'm real proud of our guys. I told them at halftime, I said ‘Look guys they're shutting off the interior.' They were clamping down on Samardo (Samuels). I said, ‘You're taking all great shots, but they're going to fall. Then I said, ‘Kyle, you go in there and dominate this game.'"
Kuric, a 6-foot-4 sophomore guard from Evansville, Ind., scored a career-high 22 points - all in the second half - as the Cards erased a five-point halftime deficit and outscored the Orange 48-33 after halftime on their way to their 682nd win (against only 141 losses) at Freedom Hall.
Kuric connected on 9 of 11 shots, including 4 of 6 from three-point range. His dunk, his first field goal of the game, with 14:25 to play started a 6-0 UofL run that gave the Cards the lead for good.
"That first dunk got me going," Kuric said. "After that my confidence kept growing and growing."
"We knew he was a good player, he just doesn't play that much," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "He just got going once he got that dunk and he got a little confidence into him. They missed so many shots that we got a little bit lax defensively. They were missing so many shots that we thought they were going to miss them all. But he made a couple of tough shots and I think he got a couple of layups in transition."
The Cards missed plenty of shots, especially from long range, in the first half as they trailed 35-30 at intermission. UofL shot just 35.3 percent in the first half, including 25 percent (6 of 24) from three-point range.
Syracuse, meanwhile, shot 51.7 percent (15 of 29) in the first half. The Orange outscored UofL 26-12 in the paint, repeatedly beating the Cards down the court for easy baskets, and outrebounded them 22-15.
At halftime several of the former all-time great Cardinals were introduced, including the 1980 and ‘86 championships teams. Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum closed the festivities by announcing: "We've still got a ball game to win."
UofL heeded the old coach's advice. The Cards scored the first five points - on a three-pointer by Edgar Sosa and a pair of free throws from Jared Swopshire - to tie the game.
Syracuse pushed its lead back to three (42-39) moments later before Kuric ignited the Cards. His breakaway dunk pulled them within one. Samuels, who went scoreless in the first half, followed with a basket, then Kuric capped the spurt with a steal and layup.
And when Kuric wasn't scoring in transition he was knocking down threes.
"He really doesn't get down on himself, but he's so shy," said Pitino, whose team shot 58.1 percent (18 of 31) in the second half. "I've never met a person like him. Even when he yell's it's a shy yell. He said today, ‘Do you mind if I shoot some extra?' He probably thought in his mind I was going to play Michael Marra, because I did at Syracuse. I did put (Marra) in early, but we needed to rebound the basketball, and that's what Kyle can do. But you can see with him how he finishes on the break. He's a great finisher on the break all the time. He has dunks in practice where we just marvel at how quickly he gets to the rim."
Kuric had three dunks in the final 3:49, including one with 44 seconds to play that sent the crowd into bedlam.
"It was great, I enjoyed it. I knew he could do it and I'm just happy for him," said Swopshire, who added 10 points and eight rebounds off the bench.
Samuels added 12 points - after going 0-for-2 in 11 minutes in the first half - and nine rebounds. Meanwhile senior guard Edgar Sosa, playing for the first time at UofL in front of his mother, finished with nine points and 10 assists.
Fellow senior guard Jerry Smith scored UofL's first eight points, but sprained his right wrist on his dunk 6:48 into the game.
"It's a sprain," Pitino said. "I don't think it's as bad as Preston (Knowles). He's going to be out a few days. He'll be there for the NCAA Tournament, but I don't know if he'll be there for the Big East Tournament. Isn't it nice saying that?"
The Cards will be the sixth seed in the Big East Tournament, which begins next week.
Pitino, meanwhile, gave Crum the final words to close UofL's time in the arena.
"Goodbye to Freedom Hall," Crum said.