By JIM O’CONNELL
NEW YORK — There was so much to reflect on just minutes after the last championship game of the Big East tournament as we know it.
Louisville became just the fourth school to repeat as champions, beating Syracuse 78-61 on Saturday night in an incredible game that saw the fourth-ranked and second-seeded Cardinals turn a 16-point, second-half deficit into an 18-point lead.
There were moments to remember over this being the final Big East tournament as has been familiar for the last three decades with the seven basketball-only schools leaving to form their own conference. There had already been so much conference realignment with football-centric schools such as Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and West Virginia leaving and others to follow.
While Louisville cut down the nets, there was quite a bit to think about.
“Obviously, it’s a real special night for the University of Louisville,” Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said of the school’s third Big East title. “The final minute of play, first thing I thought of is what an incredible group of guys I’m coaching. Then I thought how happy I was for my family, and then immediately I thought of (Big East founder and first commissioner) Dave Gavitt and what he formed, and all of us in some way or another flourish because of Dave Gavitt.
“This was a special, special night.”
There couldn’t have been many in the sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden who would have thought early in the second half that this game would be anything more than a spectacular exit for Syracuse, which is headed for the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
The 19th-ranked and fifth-seeded Orange had a 45-29 lead with 15:50 to play. It seemed to be a matter of watching the clock wind down and thinking of a celebration for Syracuse’s sixth title.
But the Cardinals turned up the fullcourt pressure and started playing the kind of defense that had them win 10 straight games.
Suddenly the Orange (26-9) couldn’t buy a basket, and the Cardinals didn’t miss. The run was 27-3 and when it was over Louisville had a 56-48 lead with 8:51 to play. In 7 minutes everything had changed.
“Our press is pretty much like controlled chaos,” said Louisville’s Peyton Siva, who joined Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing as the only repeat tournament MVPs. “We’re going to press. We’re just going to run and trap, run and trap, and Coach P is like, ‘No, you’ve got to do it in a smart way.’ For a minute there, we were running around the court with our head cut off and got a couple of steals.
“For us to really battle like that, it really shows a lot.”
The Orange scored the game’s first eight points and took a 35-22 halftime lead that had people scrambling in record books to find the largest margin of victory in a Big East championship game.
Instead the search was on for the biggest halftime deficit overcome. The previous best was nine points by Louisville over Syracuse in 2009.
The Cardinals didn’t just overcome the halftime deficit, they made it disappear quickly. The first 10 points in the run came in a span of 1:34. The Cardinals just wouldn’t let Syracuse get comfortable in any facet of the game — from bringing the ball up against the pressure to trying to find a clean look against the zone.
Louisville went on to lead 73-55 with 2:03 to play.
“I think they’re the best pressing team that I’ve seen this year,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “It was probably the worst thing to happen to get up 15. If we hadn’t played well and we were up four or five, they probably wouldn’t have done that, but that’s what they had to do at that point to go after it, and that was exactly what I would have tried to do, and that’s what they did, and they’re good at it.”
Louisville (29-5) — along with Georgetown and Marquette the tri-champions of the regular season — won its 10th straight game with its defense, forcing Syracuse into 20 turnovers.
“I knew we would come back,” Siva said during the on-court celebration. “It might not be the prettiest win in the beginning, but we got the job done.
“I don’t know how I am in the same sentence as Patrick Ewing.”
Freshman Montrezl Harrell led Louisville with a season-high 20 points, and Russ Smith and Luke Hancock both had 10 points. Gorgui Dieng had nine points, nine rebounds and eight assists for the Cardinals.
Harrell was 7 of 13 from the field and had seven rebounds.
“I came in the game just being prepared for whatever Coach needed me to do,” Harrell said. “When I got on the floor, I just wanted to help guys with a big lift. I was going all over the place, trying to get rebounds, either offense or defense. These guys looked for me, and I just tried to finish for them. I just came out hard and played my heart out.”
C.J. Fair had 21 points for the Orange, Michael Carter-Williams had 11 points and nine assists, and Brandon Triche added 10 points.
“We didn’t make some smart moves at the end, but we kind of had the lead,” said Syracuse’s James Southerland, who scored all nine of his points from beyond the arc. “We didn’t take advantage of our lead and move the ball around like we should have.”
In their 10-game winning streak, Louisville allowed opponents 54.6 points on 36.4 percent shooting while forcing 17.7 turnovers, including 10.4 steals.
Syracuse shot 40.8 percent but committed 20 turnovers. Louisville had 11 steals, including four by Siva, who became the school’s all-time leader in that category on Friday night. He tied the Big East tournament record with seven steals against Notre Dame in the semifinals.
Syracuse will leave the Big East tied with Georgetown for the most conference tournament wins at 78.