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Louisville looks like a national title contender in Big East finale

March 17, 2013 Columns No Comments

NEW YORK – The box score tells you that Louisville is leaving New York as the champions of the last Big East Tournament as we know it by virtue of a 78-61 win over Syracuse. But the box score only tells part of the story, as is so often the case. Among the things it doesn’t tell is why this Cardinal team might not be done winning championships.

Down 45-29 just over four minutes into the second half, Louisville had to do something. Syracuse was clicking on all cylinders, continuing their offensive renaissance in New York, and the Cardinals couldn’t do anything against the zone. Who did they turn to for help? Montrezl Harrell, of course.

What, you were expecting Pervis Ellison to walk through that door?

“Tonight was his night,” said senior guard Peyton Siva, who joined Patrick Ewing as the only two-time Most Outstanding Performer in Big East Tournament history. “I’ve never played particularly well against Syracuse, I’ve never really shot well. Tonight I tried to do something different and attack and get in the lane and get him the ball, and he finished tall. It’s real easy for me and Gorgui (Dieng) and the rest of the team to really get in our press when he’s making shots. He really played like a man tonight.”

Harrell was hardly alone in Louisville turning around the Big East championship game, but the freshman forward was instrumental as the Cardinals took over the game in the second half to beat Syracuse going away and take their third Big East title in five years. Harrell led Louisville with 20 points in 24 minutes off the bench and added seven rebounds, with 14 of those points coming in the second half. Louisville not only showed that they can turn a game right around with their press, but just how much depth they have, both of which could propel them at least to the Final Four.

In all, Louisville’s bench accounted for 41 of their 78 points on the evening, to go along with 16 of their 39 rebounds. Their reserves shot a combined 12-22 from the field. Siva has often struggled shooting against Syracuse, but this time he attacked and handed out eight assists with just two turnovers. Dieng wasn’t far from a triple-double with nine points, nine rebounds and eight assists. Russ Smith had 10 points on 2-8 shooting.

The bench turned the game around and showed how deep they are.

“Kevin Ware gave us a big lift defensively and offensively in a limited amount of time,” said head coach Rick Pitino. “It is a very deep team, and one where I’m confident in playing anybody.”

Added Siva: “We feel that we lose nothing when they come into the game. They’re the reason why we won the game tonight.”

It looked like Syracuse was well on their way for the first 24 minutes. They led 35-22 at the half, holding the Cardinals to 25.9 percent shooting. The Cardinals had something to do with that, as Pitino didn’t like the quick shots they took on a number of possessions. Then, after Syracuse reached the aforementioned 45-29 lead, Louisville finally woke up, running off ten unanswered points to make it a ballgame. That was only the beginning, though, as it was the start of a 27-3 run that saw Louisville take the game over. Eventually they outscored the Orange 44-10 following that point to go from 16 down to 16 up.

Louisville forced 20 turnovers and scored 32 points off them. While they certainly forced plenty, they also took advantage of Syracuse mishandling some passes right into their hands. There were several times a pass was a little off the mark, or right there and an Orange player couldn’t hang on, and a Cardinal like Siva was there to pounce and get them off and running.

The way Louisville turned the game around, largely with its bench, is only part of the story. It also didn’t take this game for the Cardinals to realize that just like they can beat anyone, they can also lose to anyone. They were down by 16 and had to turn the game around, and a lot of that deficit was of their doing, with all due credit to Syracuse.

“I think today, we might have been maybe too scared to lose,” said Smith. “We wanted to do everything right. Sometimes we’ve just got to go out there and play, and we did a great job of that in the second half when we picked our intensity up.”

Pitino said one of the big virtues of this team is that they are a humble group. They don’t have the kind of egos some of his past teams have had, and while they aren’t as talented, it’s a low-maintenance group, much as some of Smith’s decisions on the court can drive him crazy.

“I think humility is an incredible virtue to have to win,” said Pitino. “I told them before the year, last year I said in order for you to go, you have to stay focused with all your injuries. This year, only a lack of humility can stop you. They were very humble, and they’re led by Gorgui and Luke and Peyton, who are very humble people. So I think humility plays a big role in this for us.”

Louisville has a chance to be the top overall seed when the field is announced. Pitino and his players were asked if they think they deserve it, and to a man they felt it doesn’t matter. This team knows they can beat anyone and they can lose to anyone, which is a big part of why they have made it this far. They know they will play nothing but good teams in the NCAA Tournament. That, as well as how deep they are, was in evidence on Saturday night.

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