Louisville rally squishes Orange

NEW YORK — There was so much to reflect on just minutes after the last championship game of the Big East tournament as we know it.

Louisville became just the fourth school to repeat as champions, beating Syracuse 78-61 on Saturday night in a game that saw the fourth-ranked and second-seeded Cardinals turn a 16-point second-half deficit into an 18-point lead.

The seven basketball-only schools are leaving to form their own conference, and there had already been so much conference realignment with football-centric schools such as Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia leaving and others to follow.

While Louisville cut down the nets, there was quite a bit to think about.

“Obviously, it’s a real special night for the University of Louisville,” Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said of the school’s third Big East title. “The final minute of play, first thing I thought of is what an incredible group of guys I’m coaching. Then I thought how happy I was for my family, and then immediately I thought of (Big East founder and first commissioner) Dave Gavitt and what he formed, and all of us in some way or another flourish because of Dave Gavitt.

“This was a special, special night.”

There couldn’t have been many in the sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden who would have thought early in the second half that this game would be anything more than a spectacular exit for Syracuse, which is headed for the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.

The 19th-ranked and fifth-seeded Orange had a 45-29 lead with 15:50 to play. It seemed to be a matter of watching the clock wind down and thinking of a celebration for Syracuse’s sixth title.

But the Cardinals (29-5) turned up the full-court pressure and started playing the kind of defense that had won them 10 straight games.

Suddenly the Orange (26-9) couldn’t buy a basket, and the Cardinals didn’t miss. The run was 27-3, and when it was over Louisville had a 56-48 lead with 8:51 to play. In seven minutes everything had changed.

“Our press is pretty much like controlled chaos,” said Louisville’s Peyton Siva, who had 11 points and joined Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing as the only repeat tournament Most Valuable Players. “We’re going to press. We’re just going to run and trap, run and trap, and Coach P is like, ‘No, you’ve got to do it in a smart way.’ For a minute there, we were running around the court with our head cut off and got a couple of steals. For us to really battle like that, it really shows a lot.”

The Orange scored the game’s first eight points and took a 35-22 halftime lead that had people scrambling in record books to find the largest margin of victory in a Big East championship game.

Instead the search was on for the biggest halftime deficit overcome. The previous best was nine points by Louisville over Syracuse in 2009.

The Cardinals didn’t just overcome the halftime deficit, they made it disappear quickly. The first 10 points in the run came in a span of 1:34. Louisville went on to lead 73-55 with 2:03 to play.

“I think they’re the best pressing team that I’ve seen this year,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “It was probably the worst thing to happen to get up 15. If we hadn’t played well and we were up four or five, they probably wouldn’t have done that, but that’s what they had to do at that point to go after it, and that was exactly what I would have tried to do, and that’s what they did, and they’re good at it.”

Freshman Montrezl Harrell led Louisville with a season-high 20 points.

C.J. Fair had 21 points for the Orange.

Syracuse will leave the Big East tied with Georgetown for the most conference tournament wins at 78.

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