Louisville upsets No. 1 Syracuse
A reserve guard that Louisville coach Rick Pitino considers so bashful, he sounds shy even when he yells, made sure to send venerable Freedom Hall out with one more memorable game.
Kyle Kuric scored all of his career-high 22 points in the second half, and the Cardinals stunned No. 1 Syracuse 78-68 on Saturday before a record-crowd of 20,135 at the 56-year-old venue. It was the final game there before Louisville moves into a new downtown arena.
"It’s an unbelievable moment,” Kuric said. "It’s what every kid dreams of.”
Kuric may have also assured Louisville (20-11, 11-7 Big East) a return trip to the NCAA tournament by sweeping the regular-season series from the Orange (28-3, 15-3), whose only other loss came against No. 17 Pittsburgh.
"These seniors have never gone to (an NIT),” Pitino said. "And now they never will.”
Although Syracuse led by eight points late in the first half, Kuric was a one-man wrecking crew in the second. He made 9 of 11 shots — including four 3-pointers — to make for another happy ending at Freedom Hall, which has seen its share of historic games.
"There have been 54 years of great basketball, and for us to come out and beat the No. 1 team is a great going away present for all our fans,” senior Edgar Sosa said.
Trailing 42-39 early in the second half, the Cardinals found their inside game with three straight baskets in the paint that gave them the lead for good. Kuric had two of them, a fastbreak dunk and layup.
In a span of just over five minutes, Kuric also had all four of his 3-pointers. After his second one, Syracuse’s Scoop Jardine immediately answered with a 3, so Kuric simply answered right back with another one. Jardine finished with 20 points.
With under four minutes left, it was Kuric’s dunk that pushed the Louisville lead to 10, and he got another one on a break that buried the Orange with under two minutes left.
"Everybody that comes off their bench is capable of hitting three or four 3s,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "He might be the best at doing that.”
Louisville took 40 3-point attempts in the game, making 12 of them — including three by Sosa, who had 12 points.
It was a completely different game in the first half, when Syracuse dominated the paint, getting 26 points there compared to 12 for the Cardinals.
Syracuse took an early 21-20 lead with more than six minutes to go in the first half on a dunk by Rick Jackson, then stretched it to a game-high eight points a couple minutes later after a 3-pointer and fastbreak layup by Jardine.
Sosa nailed a 3 seconds before halftime to make it 35-30 at the break.
Boeheim said Louisville seems to have deciphered the Orange’s zone defense, and the players said they were having an off shooting night.
"We just weren’t flowing in our offense,” Arinze Onuaku said.
Although the Cardinals connected on 46 percent of their shots and the Orange 44 percent, the two were cold from the gate, combining for 11 shots but no points over the opening three minutes. Jerry Smith finally hit consecutive 3s for the Cardinals, and later turned in one of the more dazzling plays of the game, grabbing a steal out of midair and cruising the other way to finish with a one-handed dunk.
Smith was sidelined the second half after spraining the thumb on his right hand.
This one had all the pageantry of the final Louisville game in one of college basketball’s most storied arenas. The stands were filled long before tipoff, and fans waved towels with glowing red flashlights during player introductions.
Pitino, sporting a bright red suit coat to match the attire of most fans in attendance, introduced the team’s seniors before the game and expressed some sentimental thoughts about Freedom Hall.
"Never as a coach did I feel pressure,” Pitino said. "Tonight I felt pressure for the first time. I woke up about 2:30 in the morning and said, ‘What if we lose?’ No bid, the legends come all this way.’ It was like a nightmare.”
Freedom Hall has hosted six national championship games, a handful of NCAA tournament regional finals and 682 Louisville victories.
Denny Crum, who led the Cardinals to national titles in 1980 and 1986 and whose name is adorned on the court, was introduced at halftime alongside players from those teams.
"I love them all,” Crum said. "It’s just really fun to be here, be around them."