LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Russ Smith had just walked out of the shower area, already dressed in street clothes and sporting a Milwaukee Bucks hat after the University of Louisville basketball team lost the game and its No. 1 ranking to Syracuse, 70-68, at the KFC Yum Center Saturday afternoon.
"How long will it take you to get over this?" Smith was asked.
"I'm already over it," he said.
If you were looking for a devastated and depressed locker room, you didn't find it on the U of L side after Syracuse put the clamps on the Cardinals down the stretch.
Usually, it's U of L that throws the defensive haymaker in the second half, and this game was shaping up just that way. Syracuse managed to hang with U of L -- and erase a nine-point first-half deficit -- behind 18 points in the first half from Brandon Triche. But the Orange looked sluggish at times in the first half, and it stood to reason that U of L would ratchet up the defensive pressure and pull away late, as it had in its prior Big East games.
Instead, Syracuse was the tougher, more physical defensive team in the second half.
The Cardinals, whose offense has improved to the point that they are on a pace for the program's best field-goal percentage since the Final Four year of 2005, made just 4 of their final 21 shots. Some of those were open and should've been made. Many were influenced just enough by the lengthy Syracuse zone that they did not find their mark.
The other second-half difference? U of L forced 12 Orange turnovers in the first half, but only four in the second. For much of the game, U of L looked as if it were going to take sophomore Michael Carter-Phillips' wallet, girlfriend, identity, anything the Cards could get their hands on. He finished the game with eight turnovers, but was steady down the stretch when Syracuse needed him, and made the biggest plays of the game.
U of L coach Rick Pitino said after the game that his team's low second-half shooting percentage prevented it from getting into is press, leading to the lower turnover numbers. But the Cards turned Syracuse over plenty in the half-court in the first half, and even those went away.
Late, the Cards led by two when Wayne Blackshear elevated in the lane and was short on a jumper with 58 seconds left. Five seconds later, Chane Behanan fouled Carter-Williams driving just past midcourt. The sophomore made one of two, leaving U of L up one with the ball.
Pitino called timeout to set up a play. Point guard Peyton Siva was to drive and find Smith in the corner for a three or a drive. But when Siva drove, Smith was in the wrong corner. Instead of backing it out, Siva wheeled back and tried to throw diagonally back to Blackshear, but Carter-Whilliams stole it and dunked it to take the lead.
Now without timeouts, Siva found Dieng in the high post, who found Blackshear drifting in on the baseline. But as it had all game, Syracuse closed fiercely. Blackshear couldn't get the layup to go, and Blackshear was called for a foul in the scramble for the rebound. Syracuse made one of two free throws. With 13 seconds left and down two, Siva drove and found Dieng in the lane. Dieng was open, but did not catch the ball cleanly, and Carter-Williams closed quickly and stripped it to seal the victory.
For the record, Pitino's mood after the game was not as chipper as some of his players'. He snapped at a couple of questions, and admitted, "I'm pi--ed."
Still, Pitino said, "It was a great college basketball game. They made some really terrific defensive plays down the stretch and that was the game. Give them credit. They made the plays."
Pitino added, "I thought we got some really difficult calls down the stretch. I thought Russ drew an offensive foul (and was called for a block). Things didn't go our way down the stretch, but that's the game, sometimes you get the call and sometimes you don't. We've got to look at the film to decide. I thought we made some good plays there. It was a heck of a basketball game. They are deserving of their ranking. It was a matchup between two really good teams that will have to play each other again. It's not easy to beat our basketball team and they did it, so they deserve a lot of credit."
From a scoring standpoint, it was the lowest output U of L has gotten all season from Siva and Dieng. The pair combined for just seven points on 2 of 14 shooting. Both players, however, had six assists.
Smith was the only U of L player in double figures, finishing with 25 points and four steals. He was 7-of-7 from the line. The rest of the team was 6-of-13. The Cards got nine points each from Behanan and Blackshear, eight from Montezl Harrell and seven from Luke Hancock.
After its bench outscored the Orange's 15-4 in the first half, the Syracuse bench had a 12-3 edge in the second.
When the final horn sounded, as Syracuse celebrated, several U of L players ran immediately to Siva. He said they told him, "Don't worry about it. Head up."
Dieng was asked afterward how long a loss like this one would hurt.
"I'm not hurt at all," he said. "It was a good basketball team. We compete, and they end up winning. We give them a lot of credit. We'll watch film tomorrow and see what we did right and wrong. But in the locker room right now, you can tell, nobody's hanging his head."
Syracuse wound up with four players in double figures, led by Triche with 23. The Orange shot 49 percent for the game, while U of L shot just 40.7 (and 29 percent in the second half). Syracuse also held a 36-31 edge on the boards and a 30-28 edge in the paint. The Orange made 15 of 20 free throws. U of L made 13 of 20.
Right after the win, Boeheim said he was proud of his team, but also said he still feels like U of L is the team to beat in the Big East.
"I think Louisville is the best team," Boeheim said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that in my mind. Today, we just hung in there and were able to get a couple of steals at the end of the game. . . . They will be there at the end of the year, and the team to beat. I think they will be the team to beat in the country when it all comes down to it at the end."
But on Saturday, Syracuse showed it could beat them -- and without its No. 2 scorer (out academically) and on the road.
Smith said the Cards' confidence isn't shaken. But that it will have to gather itself and play better.
"It's Syracuse-Louisville. No 1 and No. 6," he said. "You're not going to get anything easy, and that's just how it is. So you just forget about it. Take away the good, take away the bad, look at some film and see what we need to improve. Right now, everybody's morale is pretty high. . . . Stuff like this happens in basketball. All we can do is keep our composure. We know we still have a great team, so we just have to come back the next game and just handle business. Games like this can't really affect us."