The perfect storm brewed in Kentucky and swept away the Orange on Saturday afternoon.
Led by a scintillating second-half shooting performance from reserve guard Kyle Kuric, unranked Louisville defeated top-ranked Syracuse for the second time in three weeks. A 78-68 victory in the final game ever at historic Freedom Hall gave the Cardinals (20-11, 11-7 Big East) a No. 6 seed in the upcoming Big East Tournament.
Syracuse (28-3, 15-3) is still locked in as the top seed in the Big East Tournament and assured of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Orange as top seed earned a double-bye to the 16-team tournament and play on Thursday at noon in Madison Square Garden. With the win, Louisville earned a first-round bye; they play Wednesday at 9 p.m. Official Big East Tournament Web site.
Saturday’s game exhibited the prestige of Freedom Hall, host to four Final Fours in its 54 years, and a vibrant crowd (a record 20,135 fans), as well as a host of famous alums creating tension on the floor.
“I’ve coached in two national championship games and didn’t feel pressure,” said Louisville head coach Rick Pitino following the game. “Tonight I felt pressure.”
The pressure piled on at halftime, with the Cardinals down five points (35-30) and the Orange shooting at its normal torrid pace (51.7 percent). Things only got worse for the home team: its leading scorer from the first half, guard Jerry Smith (eight points), emerged from the locker room with his shooting hand heavily bandaged. He would not return to the game.
Syracuse built a three-point lead with a steady diet of post feeds. Junior Rick Jackson found room at the top of the lane and scored five points in two minutes. His twisting jumper at 15:32 put the Orange up, 42-39, and incited the crowd. Several of Jackson’s moves involved the dreaded charge/block call, and each whistle went Syracuse University’s way.
The booing and hissing from the Louisville faithful got louder and louder with each call, but that noise instantly turned into cheers when Kuric, inserted at 16:11, threw down an emphatic two-hand jam at 14:25 to get the Cardinals within one point.
Two possessions later, Kuric snuck behind Jackson holding the basketball in the high post. The Louisville sophomore poked the ball away and outraced Orange guard Andy Rautins for another layup and a 45-42 lead for home team.
Louisville continued to fire away from three-point land (they attempted 40 on the day, sinking 12). Guard Peyton Siva hit one and then Kuric swished a deep shot of his own. The run reached 16-8 and the Cardinals held a 55-48 lead.
“(Kuric) made a couple of tough shots and I think he got a couple of layups in transition,” said SU head coach Jim Boeheim (pictured). “That always helps you get going, and he knocked down a couple."
The Orange offense became stale in the second half, and the jumpers SU settled for no longer found their mark. The No. 1 team in the country hit just 36.1 percent (12 of 33) in the second half from the floor, and missed six attempts from the line.
Rautins, the SU team leader, was held to just three points on 1-of-9 shooting with five turnovers in 38 minutes.
The Cardinals hit nearly 60 percent of its shots in the second half, including a 9-of-11 performance from Kuric. The sophomore ended up with a game-high 22 points and etched his name into Freedom Hall history forever with an alley-oop dunk that sealed the victory at 2:44.
The pre-game pressure showed on the players, as the teams were scoreless for the first 2:51 of the game. Smith broke the ice with a 3-pointer at 17:09.
Syracuse took control of the game late in the first half on their best pressure release of late: sophomore guard Scoop Jardine. The bouncy Jardine is full of confidence these days, scoring nine points with four assists in the first 20 minutes.
Jardine hit a tear drop at 10:27 and then fed senior center Arinze Onuaku for a dunk. The Orange tied the game at 15-15 with 9:35 after Jardine spun out of a half-court trap and threw a no-look feed to Onuaku.
Jardine finished with a team-high 20 points and six assists.
The Orange, and the rest of the Big East, are looking toward the Tuesday start of the 2010 championship tournament.
"Every game will be tough,” Boeheim said. “It's a nightmare. It'll be a great tournament with great games. We have a lot of good teams so any team can win.”
Photo: Zach Ornitz