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SU’s big lead disappears in Big East finale loss to Louisville


NEW YORK — Syracuse University handled Louisville’s vaunted pressure defense with aplomb and confidence the first half on Saturday night, building an impressive 13-point halftime lead.

But the final 16 minutes turned into a turnover nightmare for the Orange. The Cardinals turned up the heat, eventually caught up and then sprinted past SU for a 78-61 win in the Big East Conference championship game at Madison Square Garden, ending its 34 years in the league.

Second-seeded Louisville (29-5), winning its second straight title, overwhelmed No. 5 SU (26-9) with an unbelievable 49-16 closing run to deny the Orange a fifth Big East crown in a battle of future Atlantic Coast Conference foes.

“It’s certainly disappointing to play like that the final 15 minutes,’’ SU coach Jim Boeheim said. “But I think we’ve proved down here we are a pretty viable NCAA Tournament team, and that we can play with the best teams in the country.’’

SU turned the ball over just six times in the opening 20 minutes, and Louisville converted them into just seven points as it fell behind 35-22.

But the second half was a much different story. Fourteen Orange miscues became 25 points for the Cardinals. And that, for all intent and purpose, was the story.

“We had handled their press well in the first two games (a win and a loss),’’ Boeheim said. “But I believe they are probably the best pressing team in the country. And to play them on our fourth day here, that was the toughest matchup we could have had.’’

Said Orange senior forward James Southerland: “Our communication wasn’t nearly as good the second half, and our rotations were slower. Then we just didn’t make smart plays during their run.‘’

Freshman forward Montrezl Harrell exploded for 20 points, including 14 during Louisville’s second-half burst. Peyton Siva, tournament MVP for the second straight year, had 11 points, eight assists and four steals.

Junior C.J. Fair led SU with 21 points, making 7-of-10 shots. But after taking 31 shots the first half, making 14, including six 3-pointers, the Orange managed only 18 second-half shots and went 3-for-10 from behind the arc as the offense stalled out.

“We took so many bad outside jumpers the first half (shooting 26 percent), so the press wasn’t effective,’’ said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, whose team was in the finals for the fourth straight season. “In the second half, we worked the post better, went to the high-low a lot, and got better shots. Consequently, we could get into the press more often. You can only press if you make shots.’’

After taking an impressive 13-point lead into the break, the Orange extended the edge to 45-29 just over four minutes into the second half after back-to-back 3-pointers by Fair and Southerland.

But Louisville’s pressure finally began taking its toll, helping the Cardinals run off 10 straight points and draw within six, 45-39, after a follow shot by Stephan Van Treese with 13:52 to play.

The Orange went nearly three minutes without a point before Fair’s follow shot at the 12:51 mark. That, however, would be its only basket over the next 11 minutes as Louisville took control and SU came completely unraveled on both ends of the court for a telling stretch.

A Harrell dunk gave Louisville its first lead, 49-48, with 9:52 left to cap off a 20-3 run. And a Kevin Ware’s 3-pointer finished off what was a 27-3 spurt, boosting the Louisville lead to 56-48. SU had no answers the rest of the way on offense.

“They switched their traps the second half, and we didn’t adjust well,’’ said SU sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who scored 11 points and had nine assists, but also turned the ball over four times. “And we didn’t get nearly the same shots the second half as the first. Give Louisville credit for how they came out on us.’’

The Orange continued its stellar offensive and defensive effort of the past four days with a dynamic first half again.

They seized an early 8-0 lead as Fair and Southerland hit 3-pointers, then really turned it on over the final nine minutes of the opening half after Louisville had cut the deficit to 17-15.

SU went on a 16-7 run over the last 8:52, paced by Carter-Williams who scored nine straight points, including a spinning runner in the lane and a banked 3-pointer.

SU, which shot 45 percent from the floor, also held a significant rebounding edge, 24-17.

“Probably the worst thing for us was to be up that much at halftime,’’ Boeheim said. “It basically forced them to press even harder, and they did a great job of executing and we did not.’’

Even though it was not the ending it had hoped for, the Orange looked at the Big Apple trip as a “positive experience.’’

“We’re back on track, and that makes everybody feel better,’’ said senior Brandon Triche, who scored 10 points and made the all-tourney team along with Southerland. “Hopefully, we’ll keep taking steps forward after going backwards the last month.’’

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