Louisville basketball's third Big East Tournament game ended up being the third time this season they've played Syracuse. But Saturday night's game was on the biggest stage this season: Madison Square Garden. It was also for the biggest prize: the Big East Championship and a possible number one overall seed in the NCAA tournament. It was the hardest of fought victories, but the Cards put it together and smashed the Orange 78-61.
As the conference dissolves, the Big East decided not to go quietly into that good night.The tournament has been filled with thrillers, upsets and even an overtime. Peyton Siva looked great in the earlier tourney games, but he's always struggled against the Orange.
And he opened the game like that again. He forced a couple of jumpers that didn't go in. Meanwhile Syracuse opened their end with a couple of three point goals. Russ Smith probed the Orange zone to find the weak points. He didn't turn it into points early but the hope was that it would pay dividends later.
Meanwhile, Syracuse burned down the nets from beyond the arc in the first half and that's how they built their lead making Louisville play from behind for the entire first half. James Southerland nailed two out of three triples early on. The Cards weren't fazed by it though. From their regular season games, they'd been in this spot before.
Louisville's unlikely hero during their claw back into contention was freshman Montrezl Harrell who scored 6 straight points including a rim rattling slam for points 5 and 6. There would be many more to come.
With the Cards only shooting 26% from the field, Syracuse went up by 15 points near the end of the first half which woke up the New York crowd to cheer on the Orange. In fact, the Cards went into the locker room down 35-22.
The second half opened like the first ended with Syracuse scoring and Louisville struggling. But it didn't stay that way for long. The Cards found what they were looking for earlier in the game and that was the soft spots in the zone, especially the high and the low post.
Photo: Louisville.com/Tim Girton
The Cardinal defense also had trouble creating turnovers which is the teeth of the Louisville defense. They were tasked with finding what brought them to the party and start playing that way. By the end, they turned over the Orange 19 times.
When they finally found that rhythm, they started playing like the defending Big East Tournament champions as they went on a 10-0 run in only 1:45. When the run went to 20-3 to wrench the lead from the Orange, the Cards finally got their mojo working. The exclamation point was a Harrell two hand jam.
The Louisville bench came up big. Harrell played strong and Kevin Ware nailed big shots as well. With a confident Luke Hancock playing like he's been there before, the comeback kept rolling. Early on, Syracuse had the blowout working. However, Louisville didn't want that to be their script.
Games like this are the ones coaches tell you to dig deep for. What Louisville did was take their warm up shirts seriously. They came out with "Rise to the Occasion" sweatshirts for every game of the tournament. If there was ever a game challenge that the motto, this was it.
The unlikely hero was Montrezl Harrell. He scored 20 points and 7 rebounds in his biggest came as a Cardinal. Smith and Hancock finished with 10 each. When Louisville got the extra pass working, you got Siva and Gorgui Dieng both dishing 8 assists.
For the second year in a row, the Cards are Big East Tournament Champions and Peyton Siva is the player of the tournament for the second year as well. Sunday night, we’ll see where Louisville’s bracket will take them with the possibility of them playing their opening round games in Rupp Arena in Lexington.
Photo: Louisville.com/Tim Girton