Syracuse finally got on the scoreboard at the 17:35 mark on a pair of Onuaku free throws, but McGee answered with his second three pointer of the game on the ensuing possession to give Louisville an 8-2 lead. Freshman sensation Donte Green responded with a deep three point shot of his own from straight away, enabling the Orange to remain within striking distance in the game's early going.
The Cardinals came out pressing, seeking to make the depth-deprived Orange expend maximum energy simply to bring the ball upcourt. But the overaggressive defensive pressure of Louisville worked against them initially, as Syracuse drew a foul on Scott Padgett on its next possession. After forcing a Louisville miss, Syracuse had a chance to tie the game on the next possession, but a weak offensive foul call on a Jonny Flynn drive to the basket caused the Orange to enter the first television timeout trailing 8-6.
But after forcing a Louisville three second call after the timeout, sophomore swingman Paul Harris fed Onuaku for a gorgeous dunk inside that drew Padgett's second foul. Onuaku was able to convert the old-fashioned three point play to give the Orange their first lead of the game. After Harris tacked on a pair of free throws after forcing another Louisville turnover to increase SU's lead to 11-8, Edgar Sosa tied the contest on Louisville's third three-point field goal of the game.
The teams traded baskets for the next several minutes, with Syracuse attacking the Louisville full court pressure defense with aplomb. After freshman reserve guard Antonio "Scoop" Jardine converted a high arching, fast break bank shot, Syracuse led 17-12 and forced Louisville coach Rick Pitino to take a timeout to quell the Orange momentum.
Enter Derek Caracter. With Cardinal star Padgett saddled with fouls on the bench, Caracter came into the game and gave his team an offensive lift—scoring inside to cut the Syracuse lead to 3 points. After a Harris free throw and a Greene post up move gave the Orange a 20-16 lead, Louisville went on a 6-0 run to take the lead at the 5 minute mark of the first half.
With momentum and the crowd now back on Louisville's side, the Cardinals forced a miss and a shot clock violation on Syracuse's next two possessions. But just as the roof seemed about ready to blow off of Freedom Hall, Onuaku came to life, drawing two fouls [one offensive] on Caracter in a 20 second span, giving him three for the game. Suddenly, both of Louisville's centers were saddled with foul trouble.
Greene tied the game at 24-24 after nailing a pair of free throws at the 2:04 mark. Louisville briefly reclaimed the lead after being sent to the line, but Syracuse again tied the game by breaking the Louisville pressure and scoring on a strong drive to the basket by Harris.
The half ended with a 26-26 tie after Louisville was unable to convert several shot attempts on their final possession. Syracuse was able to play the Cardinals even by holding their own on the glass on both ends of the floor, by forcing turnovers, and by rendering Padgett a non-factor due to foul trouble. In fact, Padgett went scoreless in the first half, playing only 5 minutes due to foul trouble.
Syracuse started the second half in much the same way as the first half—going scoreless for several minutes. Louisville drew first blood on a jumper from junior Earl Clark. After several sloppy possessions by both teams, the Cardinals extended their lead by adding another three-point shot from the baseline. Syracuse finally broke into the scoring column by converting a fast break, 2-on-1 layup by Harris, who also drew a foul. Harris converted the traditional three point play to cut the Louisville lead to 33-29.
After the Cardinals scored on their next possession, Syracuse committed another shot clock violation on its next possession, getting the Louisville crowd back into the game. The raucous crowd exploded when McGee hit yet another three point shot, giving the Cardinals their biggest lead of the game at 9 points.
With the Orange teetering on the brink of being blown out, Flynn converted a pair of acrobatic layups, and tacked on a free throw to cut into the Louisville lead. Syracuse went into the under 12 minute timeout trailing 41-34, but scored on a tip in by freshman center Rick Jackson to climb back within 5 points. Jardine found Flynn on the wing for a trifecta that cut the lead to 2, but Syracuse committed the cardinal sin of fouling Sosa on a three point shot during Louisville's next possession. Sosa converted 2 out of his three attempts to extend the lead to 43-39.
After drawing an offensive foul on Flynn on SU's next possession, Sosa drilled another three—and suddenly the Orange trailed by 7 again. But a strong drive to the basket by Harris drew Padgett's 4th foul of the game at the 9:25 mark. Harris connected on only 1 of 2 free throws, to reduce the Orange deficit to 6 [46-40].
Unfortunately, even with Padgett relegated to the bench, Louisville began to take control on the glass, capitalizing on a 40-25 rebounding edge to reclaim an 8 point lead [the Cardinals would finish the game with a 53-34 edge in rebounding]. Syracuse was repeatedly held to one-and-done on multiple possessions, while on the opposite end, the Cardinals were able to extend possession after possession by chasing down their own missed shots.
Sensing vulnerability amongst the depth-deprived Orange, Pitino again slapped on a full court press that enabled the Cardinals to dictate tempo. As the game became more of a track meet, Syracuse missed several easy field goal attempts. On the strength of fresher legs, Louisville sprinted to a 10-point lead a mere three minutes after the Orange had cut the lead to 2 points.
With the game on the line, Syracuse worked the ball inside repeatedly to Onuaku, and the big man came through. Onuaku scored and drew a foul on Caracter [his fourth], and then scored on SU's next possession to close the gap to 6 points. Sensing that the game's momentum had changed, an agitated Pitino again called timeout.
Unfortunately, the rims were unkind down the stretch to the Orange, who failed to capitalize on a pair of easy scoring opportunities by Greene and Harris on the team's next two possessions. On the opposite side of the floor, Louisville forward Terrance Williams scored on an acrobatic move in the lane, giving him 12 points in the second half after being held scoreless in the 1st half.
With time now working against the Orange, Syracuse made one final push. Flynn found Harris inside for a point-blank bucket, and after forcing a Louisville miss, junior forward Kristof Ongenaet fed the ball into the post, where Onuaku scored on a powerful dunk over Caracter. Suddenly, the Louisville lead had dwindled to 4 points at the 3:37 mark. After Padgett missed a pair of free throws for Louisville, Onuaku converted an offensive put-back off of a missed shot by Harris to help Syracuse pull within 2 of the home team [52-50] with 2:21 to play.
Just as the Orange seemed poised to spring a second straight top 25 upset, the bottom fell out of the comeback attempt. Louisville closed the game on a 9-0 run—including a pair of uncontested breakaway dunks in the game's final 30 seconds that gave the Cardinals a 61-50 victory over the visiting Orange—a final score that belied how closely contested the game was throughout.
Next up for the Orange: another difficult road test against #21 Notre Dame, on Saturday, February 24th at 2:00PM EST.