There wasn't a specific moment that signaled the beginning of the end for the ‘Cuse but nonetheless, the resulting effect on SU was devastating and instantaneous. A dark storm could rising from the netherworld, fatigue finally grabbed hold of Syracuse on Saturday night in the Garden and refused to let go. When it was all said and done, Louisville had the game in hand to the point that SU Coach Jim Boeheim threw in the towel with just over a minute to go, when he removed his trio of star guards from the game.
It wasn't all bad for SU though. The game couldn't have started out much better, with SU forcing a tough three point attempt and a turnover on defense. Guard Eric Devendorf, who would later go on to shatter the scoring record for a single Big East tournament, went to work early. He went shopping early, coming back with two baskets from distance (100% nylon) as the ‘Cuse rolled to a 6-0 advantage.
In a game of runs, Louisville responded with eleven unanswered, utilizing its full court press on defense to speed Syracuse up and force turnovers. The Orange soon learned how to beat the press though, with Belgian forward Kristof Ongenaet feeding the monster in the low post for some easy buckets. The monster, Rick Jackson, threw down a couple of vicious flushes, scoring six straight for SU to cut the gap to 13-12.
From there, both teams seemed to settle into an offensive groove. The Cardinals hit the eight-minute TV timeout of the first half with a 25-22 lead, but SU struck viper-like with a three-pointer to even the score out of the timeout. Louisville's Terrence Williams, selected to the Big East Tournament First Team, responded in kind, swishing a trifecta to put the Cards back on top. SU used a 13-2 run over the last six minutes of the first half, however, to seize control of the game.
With the Orange leading by one, Devendorf got free and drained another three. Louisville then took a hurried shot on its next possession and Devendorf, who according to Jay Bilas "never rebounds, but is always running back to the other end of the floor after a shot" (one of the funnier moments in the broadcast…you didn't know whether to laugh at Bilas and nod your head knowingly or be angry at him), fired a pass ahead to Ongenaet on the break. The Belgian Waffler took it strong to the tin, throwing down a rim-rattling jam ahead of the pack. K.O. would have his legs swept out from under him after the dunk (unintentionally) by Louisville's Terrence Jennings and landed hard on his upper back and neck on the hardwood, a truly terrifying moment.
Ongenaet was able to walk off under his own power after a few minutes and Paul Harris came in to hit the free throw, completing the three-point play. Jamesville DeWitt's finest, guard Andy Rautins added the final flourish to the first half, knocking down an NBA-range three to put SU up 38-30 at the break.
Devendorf led all scorers with thirteen points at the break, as SU showed no signs of being tired in the first twenty minutes. Preston Knowles carried most of the scoring burden for Rick Pitino's club in the early going, but the ‘Ville also got solid contributions on the stat sheet from Earl Clark and its plethora of guards. SU turned the ball over seven times in the first half, as Louisville's unending guard rotation wore down SU.
Up eight at the half though, SU had all the right in the world to believe the crown was theirs for the taking. Nevertheless, this was a Louisville team that trailed by eight at the half to Villanova just one night previous. And just like in that game, the tables turned upside down when the second half started. Just six minutes into the second half, Louisville had put 21 points on the board, turning an eight point deficit into an eight point lead.
SU would fight and claw valiantly, but Paul Harris, Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku would miss too many bunnies down the stretch for the ‘Cuse to make a go of it. With SU having closed to within seven at 54-47 with twelve minutes to go, Cardinals guard Jerry Smith clanged a three-pointer off the iron, high up into the air and down through the cylinder – his second miraculous shot from downtown that rattled home on the night. A few minutes later, guard Edgar Sosa banked in a ridiculously difficult shot in the lane with time running down on the shot clock to give Louisville a double-digit advantage at 65-54. When shots like those are falling for the opponent and SU can't buy a layup for Jackson or Harris, odds are it's just not SU's night.
And that would prove to be the case at MSG, despite Johnny Flynn's best efforts. He poured in eight of his 11 points in the second half, trying to singlehandedly will SU into yet another overtime. He had a few too many sloppy passes and just didn't quite seem to be his normal self. SU's last mistake led to Terrence Williams ripping the ball away from Ongenaet on the floor (Syracuse had no timeouts left to call at this point). T-Will's seventh steal of the night set up a mammoth dunk that would put Louisville up ten with just over a minute to go.
Boeheim then decided enough was enough and pulled Flynn, Rautins and Devo from the game with 1:19 to go.
Some observations from SU's 76-66 setback at the (pesky) hands of Louisville:
-Johnny Flynn played marvelously and the last thing I'd want to do is take away from his MVP performance in the tournament, but it goes without saying that Louisville is the type of team that flies under the radar and has no one player that sticks out. Thus, why there wasn't a clear-cut MVP candidate from their team. Such was the case tonight, as the Cards boasted six players with double digits in the points column.
-Both these teams are going to be tough outs in the NCAA tournament and it wouldn't be shocking to see them be the last two left standing in that tournament as well. The Cards and ‘Cuse are fundamentally sound teams – athletic, shoot the ball well and bring a few extra things to the table that will likely confound opponents who haven't played them before.
-Why did Boeheim bring in Justin Thomas with 12:21 to go in the game with the contest still well within reach? Not that it hurt SU (he played all of eighteen seconds in that stint), but wouldn't it make just as much sense to bring in Kris Joseph for some additional size and use Devo and Rautins to run the backcourt? Of course, maybe Boeheim just wanted Thomas to get another moment in the spotlight, as he's a senior. Joseph, a freshman, could have quite a few more opportunities at MSG.
-Louisville made as many free throws (14) as Syracuse attempted. The Cards also had as many steals (15) as they did personal fouls committed.
-You can't say enough about the heart of both teams and the class exhibited by both teams. There was some good, physical Big East basketball but nothing that happened tonight was malicious at all. Devendorf even gave Andre McGee a helping hand after knocking him over and drawing a foul in the closing minutes.
Syracuse now awaits the NCAA Tournament Selection Show to find out who it plays next. It will be televised at six o'clock Sunday evening on CBS. If you miss that, just tune into any ESPN channel or log onto nearly any news or sports website over the next couple of days, as I'm sure bracket-mania will be the order of the day for the first half of the upcoming week and you'll likely see SU getting some serious love as a Final Four sleeper.