Jim Boheim all but welcomed Friday night’s letdown to Cincinnati.
"Most national championships — not all, but a lot of them — have been won by a team that loses in their conference tournament, including us," the longtime Syracuse coach said. "So, as much as we want to win this tournament, the tournament that starts next week is the only one that matters. Nothing else matters in college basketball."
For a good portion of No. 2 Orange’s 71-68 loss in the semifinals of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, it appeared Syracuse’s attention was hardly on a tournament in a conference the team may not even be a member of in the not-so-distant future. And, obviously, news that top-ranked Kentucky nearly fell to LSU in the SEC tourney wasn’t much of a wake-up call.
"You never want to lose a game, but this was a learning experience," Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine said. "We can learn from this in a lot of ways. We came back. We showed fight. We showed heart. But we have to be better."
The Bearcats led by as many as 17 points in the first half, the largest deficit the Orange (31-2) have fallen to outside of an 18-point debt against Notre Dame in their only other loss this season. The Orange were actually fortunate to be down only a dozen at the half considering how horribly they handled the Bearcats’ zone defense.
"It was different, and we didn’t pick up on it right away like we should have," Jardine said. "I tell you, from now on, if a team tries to play zone it’ll be a bad thing. We’ll be ready. We have a whole week to be ready."
Solving a zone isn’t the only hurdle as Syracuse attempts to win a second national championship. Senior forward Kris Joseph — the Orange’s top scorer in the regular season at 14.1 points per game — was 3 for 14 (21 percent) and averaged just 9.5 points in Syracuse’s two Big East tourney games. Jardine, their other senior, had only eight points over two nights.
"The one thing that stands out to me is when we’ve played well, Scoop and Kris have been there for us," Boeheim said. "When we played our best, Scoop and Kris have been there. … They are the two seniors that have to take you forward. … We have won 31 games — which is a good thing — and we’ve done it with Scoop and Kris setting the tone every game."
Syracuse was still in the game late, though. The Orange used their press to cut the Bearcat lead down to six points with 8:56 left in regulation when Dion Waiters — who led all scorers with 28 points — hit the first of two free throws.
Syracuse trailed 58-55 on a Fab Melo dunk with 3:09 remaining. Waiters made it one-point game, 69-68, by hitting two free throws with six seconds left, only to have the Bearcats break the press and ice the game on a Justin Jackson dunk via an outlet from Sean Kilpatrick.
"We’ve made a play in every game this year," Boheim said. "We’ve been in that situation. We’ve been down eight to Connecticut with seven minutes to go last night. We were within eight tonight. … Every game we’ve been in that situation, we’ve been able to make plays, and tonight we had somewhat easier plays. We just didn’t make them."
Had they, Syracuse would have been playing for their sixth Big East title. Not a bad footnote to be sure in a season that has seen longtime assistant Bernie Fine forced out due to sexual misconduct allegations and this week’s news that Syracuse self-reported drug policy violations to the NCAA more than a year ago — alleged breaches that did not involve any of the Orange’s current players.
"I’d much rather be playing here tomorrow night," Joseph said. "It’s the championship game. But it’s good to go back home to Syracuse and have some good practices. We’re looking forward to that. You leave here with our heads held high knowing your team’s won 31 games. You know that we’re good enough to compete for a national championship."
The 2003 Syracuse team left this arena likely with much less swagger after a 13-point loss to Connecticut in the semifinals. It certainly didn’t hinder that team’s run toward the school’s lone national title that didn’t get the boost this Orange team is likely to receive from the selection committee on Sunday: a No. 1 seed.
Louisville 64, Notre Dame 50
The Cardinals advanced to the championship game for the third time over the last four years. This time, Louisville advanced due in large part due to a dominant shooting effort as it went 56 percent from the field paced by 16-point effort from Gorgui Dieng.
Louisville used a 26-4 run to close the first half with a 35-19 lead.