BY MIKE RILEY
Two National Championships. Nine NCAA Final Four’s. A total of 38 NCAA tournament appearances. Numerous All-Americans.
And yet one thing had eluded the Louisville Cardinals. Until Saturday.
For the first time in their history, Louisville took the home court as the No. 1 ranked team in the country. But following an impressive 73-58 win at Connecticut on Monday, No. 6 Syracuse took advantage of some late Louisville mistakes to steal a 70-68 victory at the Yum! Center on Saturday.
The Cardinals had held the No.1 ranking just once previously, that being at the end of the 2008-09 season when Louisville entered the NCAA tournament as the overall No.1 seed.
Louisville (16-2, 4-1 Big East) led by as many as eight points early in the second half, the Cardinals fell behind by as many as four before tying the game at 66-all on a Chane Behanan basket, then taking the lead on two Russ Smith free throws with 1:58 left.
At the 3:44 mark, Smith had hit two free throws to cut the lead to two. But those were to be the Cardinals’ last points as Michael Carter-Williams of Syracuse (17-1, 5-0) sandwiched two free throws around a steal and dunk for the victory.
“It was a great college basketball game,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. “They made some really terrific defensive plays down the stretch and that was the game. Give them credit, they made the plays. They made the shots when it counted, and we didn’t, so you have to give them credit. Great college basketball game and they won it.”
Louisville’s chance to tie or take the lead ended with a bad pass inside to Gorgui Dieng in the final seconds, which Syracuse recovered to seal the victory.
“We ran a play to get Russ the ball in the corner, and Russ didn’t get to the corner,” Pitino said “You call timeout to run a specific play and you’ve got to get there. We were going to catch them in a bump and if Russ didn’t have the shot, he could drive to close out and he didn’t get there. Gorgui is not the problem.”
The game was tied at 38 at the half despite Louisville being outrebounded 15-8 and allowing Syracuse to shoot 61 percent from the floor. The Cardinals did force 12 first half turnovers as they had nine steals within the games first ten minutes.
Syracuse’s Brandon Triche hit all seven of his first half field goal attempts, including four from 3-point range. He finished with 23 points. The hard thing for Cardinal fans to swallow about Triche’s performance- in his last two games from the field, he was a combined 3-of-18.
Smith led Louisville and was the only Cardinal in double-figures with a game-high 25 points. Behanan and Wayne Blackshear each finished with nine points. Behanan also finished with 11 rebounds, but the Orange finished the game with a 36-31 advantage on the boards.
Syracuse placed a total of four players in double-figures. Carter-Williams finished with 16 points. C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant each had 10 points.
“I thought both teams played incredibly hard,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. “There were some opportunities where we could have gotten discouraged. Brandon kept us in it in the first half. We really didn’t have much going in the first half.
“It was a tough game, a very tough game. Louisville’s very good. Dieng is a big problem out there for you. Smith, he puts it in the basket.”
Louisville built its early second half lead. The Cardinals did not allow a Syracuse field goal for more than 4 minutes. The Orange tied the game at 52 and 55 before getting their first lead of the half on a Carter-Williams 3-pointer that made it 64-62 with 5:28 left.
“Well, I think we played really well,” Pitino said. “I think they played really well. It was a really good college basketball game. We made some crucial mistakes down the stretch, but they made it, we didn’t. We had some good plays and they raked the ball away from us. We’re playing good basketball.”
Louisville will hit the road for their next game, Tuesday night at Villanova. The Orange host Cincinnati on Monday.