NEW YORK – It was going to happen sooner or later. And for Syracuse the fatigue set in just in time for Louisville to pull away in the second half and double their delight in the Big East.
But it wasn’t easy for the Cardinals. Much like the semi-final against Villanova they fell behind early and needed a spark after the break to capture their first Big East tournament title 76-66 Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
“We entered the Big East the wrong year coming off a final four where we lost our leadership and talent,” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said. “We had to rebuild in the Big East. People ask me ‘how does it feel to win one’ and they don’t realize we’ve only been in the league four years and these guys came in the NIT year, and are going out Big East regular season and conference champions.”
Trailing by eight at the half, Louisville opened the second half on a tear outscoring Syracuse 21-5 over the first 6:15 of the period. Earl Clark capped the run with a three pointer that put the Cardinals up 51-43 – it was a lead they would never relinquish. Clark finished with 13 points, nine in the second half to go with 10 boards.
Samardo Samuels led the team with 15 points, but it was the balanced effort for the Cards that Pitino was most satisfied with. Preston Knowles, Andre McGee, Jerry Smith and Terrence Williams also scored in double figures for the Cardinals.
“You’re legs are going to give out sooner or later,” said Pitino whose team sizzled in the second half to the tune of 60.9 percent shooting including six three pointers in the period. “They were brilliant down the stretch and I want to congratulate our guys. These two seniors are taking us on a great run – T-will was his brilliant self tonight and Andre [McGee] puts more pressure on anybody than any mother-in-law in the country.
“The guys did a great job in the second half of finding the open man and our key is, stop the three and hit the three. When you look at us you see a lopsided point total from making the three, but the three is of no value if you can’t stop the three.”
But it was the senior Williams who announced his presence on the national stage in front of the Garden crowd.
“We’ve been here three years in a row and haven’t won”, said Williams who finished with 11 points, seven rebounds and seven steals. “To come here [in the Garden] and finally be able to hold that trophy is truly amazing.”
Louisville will now turn its attention to the NCAA tournament, where the Cards are now all but assured a number one seed.
“I think it’s a distinct possibility that we will get three Big East teams at No.1 [in the NCAA tournament], but there is so much banter and talk about seeding,” Pitino said. “I’m amazed that people are getting so into it, but I can tell you from experience that it doesn’t matter where you are seeded – you have to play good basketball.”
For Syracuse, the tired legs finally caught up with them. The Orange struggled to find the basket in the second half after building a 38-30 halftime lead. They shot 36.7 percent from the field and turned the ball over 10 times in the period.
“I thought the first half we played very well on both ends,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said. “In the second half we made a couple bad turnovers and they converted them. We got open looks, but you have to make shots against them because when you don’t they are going to score on the other end."
But the Orange won’t leave New York without providing the tournament with some of its most memorable moments.
“I’m really proud of what my guys did here this week and Jonny [Flynn] was unbelievable,” Boeheim said. “There are two things people are going to remember about this year – the Syracuse-UConn game and what we do in the [NCAA] Tournament."
Flynn played 34 minutes against the Cardinals, one night after playing 45 against West Virginia and 67 in the six overtime marathon against UConn.
“I was very disappointed,” said Flynn who finished with 11 points and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. “I was so proud of my team for battling this whole week and we put in a lot of work and made it a lot further than people thought. I wasn’t really feeling fatigued, but we just made too many mistakes.”
Eric Devendorf led the Orange with 20 points, giving him 84 for the tournament – a number that broke Ben Gordon’s 81 set in 2004.
Both teams will now prepare for the NCAA tournament and the experience and pressure that comes with playing in the Big East is something Boeheim hopes will translate to wins in the coming weeks.
“We will look back on this as being a great thing for us,” said Boeheim who coached in his 14th Big East championship. “Not just this tourney but the last two weeks.”