March 14, 2009
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NEW YORK (AP) - Louisville's first Big East championship will be remembered as well for its runner-up's overtime work.
The fifth-ranked Cardinals swept the league's titles, beating No. 18 Syracuse 76-66 on Saturday night in the title game to add to their regular season championship and end the Orange's run in regulation.
"These guys have bought into total team," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "We did it in the toughest year in the history of the Big East to sweep both. I'm gushing with pride."
The Big East had as many as nine teams ranked in one poll this season, and heading into the tournament four teams from the league were ranked in the top 10, including No. 2 Pittsburgh and No. 3 Connecticut.
The Cardinals went 16-2 in their fourth regular season and then won three more games to win it all.
"Someone asked how does it feel to finally win it and I said 'We've been here for only four years," Pitino said.
The conference's first five-day tournament included Syracuse's epic six-overtime win over Connecticut in the quarterfinals and a more mundane one-overtime victory over West Virginia in the semis.
"We were fine tonight in the first half," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "If we got a little tired, we got a little tired. Louisville played better than us in the second half. That's it."
Louisville's pressure defense is tough on a team with plenty of rest. It was really troubling for a team that had played nearly an extra game of overtime in a four-day span.
It took a while for it to start working against the Orange. Turnovers were part of the problem in Louisville's 13-3 run to open the second half that seemed to be what finally stopped Syracuse.
"That's what they do," Boeheim said. "We made a couple of turnovers and they converted.
"But I told our players that we won this thing the last two times we were in the finals and I'm just as proud or maybe a little bit more proud of what they've done this week in New York even though we didn't win."
The conference title in their fourth season in the Big East will probably translate into a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the Cardinals (28-5).
Syracuse guard Jonny Flynn, who played 67 minutes in the marathon win over No. 3 Connecticut and all 45 in the victory over West Virginia, was selected the tournament MVP. He had 11 points and six assists in a mere 34 minutes against the Cardinals, but that followed three games where he averaged 22 points and 10 assists, including 34 and 11 against the Huskies.
"I would trade the trophy to win the Big East tournament any day. The team awards are way better," Flynn said. "I'm just very disappointed. I wasn't even fatigued. I was actually feeling pretty good out on the court but we just made too mistakes and missed a lot of shots."
The win was the 10th straight for Louisville, which will be making its second straight NCAA appearance and 34th overall.
Eric Devendorf had 20 points for Syracuse (26-9), which had won seven straight and went from a team that was being talked about in bubble terms to one deserving of seeding around No. 4. The Orange will return to the NCAA tournament after missing it for two straight years.
Syracuse was going for a sixth Big East title in its 14th championship. Its last title came in 2006, when Gerry McNamara led an overachieving team on a memorable run of last-second wins.
The Cardinals made sure there was no great story for Syracuse this time.
Syracuse closed the first half on a 13-2 run to take a 38-30 lead. But the Cardinals opened the second half on a 13-3 run that included two 3-pointers and during which Syracuse turned the ball over three times. The Cardinals led 43-41 on a reverse layup by freshman Samardo Samuels, who finished with 15 points, just 3:05 in.
The Cardinals turned around their semifinal win over Villanova with a quick burst to start the second half.
"At halftime, we said, `Look, it's not going to happen in a matter of a minute or two like last night but it did," Pitino said. "We got a great run and we turned it around.
Suddenly, the Syracuse players did look a little tired. They didn't seem to have their legs as they came up empty on six straight possessions after tying the game at 43.
Louisville scored eight straight points, the last four by Earl Clark, who had 13 points and 10 rebounds, and it seemed like another game with a chance of going overtime was not going to happen.
One possession in that stretch, Syracuse missed four 3-pointers. They managed to corral three long rebounds in the sequence, but none produced any points.
"There was a point there where we got three, four open looks. You have to make shots against them," Boeheim said. "You have to make them and when you don't, they're going to score on the other end."
A 3 by Andre McGee gave Louisville a 68-56 lead with 4:04 to play, and the Syracuse fans in the sellout crowd of 19,375 at Madison Square Garden only had two more reasons to cheer: when Boeheim took the starters out with 1:19 to go and when Flynn was announced as the MVP.
Terrence Williams had 11 points, seven rebounds and six assists for the Cardinals, who finished 10-for-28 from 3-point range and forced Syracuse into 17 turnovers, 10 in the second half.
"It means so much to the team since we got sent home the last three years and everybody said we can't play in Madison Square Garden," Williams said. "So to come here and prove that wrong and say we're in the toughest and to hold up that trophy and be a part of history of the Big East, it means a lot to us."
Andy Rautins, whose 3 at the start of the sixth overtime gave Syracuse the lead for good two nights earlier, finished 2-for-10 from behind the arc as the Orange went 5-for-18.
Louisville won 15 conference titles before joining the Big East, 11 in the Metro, and two each in Conference USA and the KIAC.
Flynn was the first MVP from a losing team since Victor Page of Georgetown in 1996.