NEW YORK (WDRB) -- It was as grim a halftime atmosphere as you can imagine. Syracuse was on a roll. It had made half its three pointers. It was the Big East "team of destiny," with the kind of aura a down-on-its-luck University of Louisville team rode to the Big East Tournament championship a season ago.
Syracuse was bigger, more energized, and had 85 percent of the Madison Square Garden on its side, in full voice. It pummeled U of L to a 16-point deficit in the first half of the championship game, matching its largest deficit of the season, and led by 13 points by the time Cardinals coach Rick Pitino walked into the locker room to talk to his team.
Russ Smith picks up the story from there.
"He was yelling and getting into us for couple of minutes," Smith said. "It was pretty strong. And told us the stuff we'd done wrong. And then he just said, 'This is the last Big East Tournament. Is this how you're going to represent us? Is this how you want to go out? You better figure it out.'"
And then, Smith said, Pitino walked out. "He just walked out."
That's not a misprint. In the biggest game of the year, Pitino walked out and left his players looking at each other.
And sometime in the next few minutes, the Cardinals figured it out.
Gorgui Dieng gives some details.
"We just kind of pulled together because we knew that wasn't the kind of basketball we've been playing," Dieng said. "But what we kept saying was we knew how much this game meant to coach. This game meant so much to him. The only way we were going to make him happy was to win this game. It meant a lot to him, and he means a lot to us. This game meant a lot to us. All through the second half, we were saying to each other, let's win this one for coach and win it for ourselves. He sacrifices a lot of time for us. We owe it to him to work."
Added Smith: "In the second half, we just kept telling (Pitino), 'We got you, man.' We felt like we were letting him down. And we just came together and said, 'Yo, we got to pick this up. Coach and the staff have been working hard, and we needed to pick them up."
Pitino acknowledged that what words he did have at halftime were pretty heated.
"I had to jump our guys pretty hard at halftime," he said. " . . . If I swear, they would have heard a lot of cuss words. Thank God I don't swear."
Don't believe that last part. But believe this: What happened next will go somewhere in a file in Pitino's Hall of Fame dossier under the heading marked, "Comeback."
Pitino has had some dramatic comebacks, some improbable comebacks, and some downright unbelievable comebacks. He's had bigger comebacks than the one his team worked on Syracuse Saturday night. But he may not have had as total, as completely dominant a comeback against a good team as the Cardinals put on Syracuse.
U of L hit the Orange with a 27-3 run early in the second half. They outscored them 44-10 in one stretch. They went from 16 points down to 18 up.
This is what it sounds like when tables turn: Syracuse outscored U of L 9-4 on second-chance points in the first half. U of L outscored the Orange 20-5 on them in the second. Points off turnovers were 8-7 Syracuse in the first half, 21-3 Cardinals in the second. U of L's bench outscored Syracuse's 41-9, including 29-4 in the second half.
From a nuts-and-bolts standpoint, there were reasons for the Cards' struggles.
"Our defense wasn't great because our offense was quick shooting," Pitino said. "And we're not a quick-shooting team. We put ourselves in a hole by not moving the basketball working high-low. Gorgui was the facilitator of the game because, when we got the ball high, Montrezl (Harrell) with his length . . . could do more."
Aside from execution, this also was about some outstanding individual efforts, in fact a few that transcended this particular game.
Freshman Montrezl Harrell has shown glimpses of brilliance all season, but they were short-lived. In the second half Saturday, he was the most dominant interior player in the game. He scored 14 of his game-high 20 points in the game's final 11 1/2 minutes. He dunked over three Syracuse players on one massive slam. He made jumpers. And even more improbable, he made 6 of 9 free throws.
"In college basketball, you never know," Pitino said. "And tonight this young man gave us a tremendous lift."
Said Smith: "Trez came to play, man. He had so much energy." Added Dieng: "That's scary, what Trez did. If I was the other team and saw that, I'd be worried. Anyone on this team can have a big game."
Kevin Ware had a big tournament. He provided a spark off the bench all three nights, and provided a memorable image in the championship game. After he completed a lob slam that put U of L up by 8 with 8:24 left, he headed up the press on Carter-Williams. As the sophomore brought the ball up, Ware could not stop laughing. He stared Carter-Williams in the eye, tongue out, smiling and laughing. Ware finished with nine points.
Dieng didn't have double-figure anything Saturday, and didn't have a great tournament. But he finished the game one point, one rebound and two assists shy of a triple-double. The Cardinals ran their offense through him, and he responded with shots, passes and, in the game's final 10 minutes, major rebounding.
And then there was Peyton Siva. His past five games against Syracuse have been major disappointments. He threw a ball away that helped lose a home game against the Orange when the Cardinals were ranked No. 1 this season. He went 0 for 9 from the field in a win at Syracuse and was lifted in favor of Kevin Ware, benched for the first time since becoming starter two years ago. In his past five games against the Orange, he was 7 for 40 from the field. In his past three, 2 for 20.
Saturday, he was the Most Valuable Player. He drove. He dished. He defended. He got into freshman Michael Carter-Williams head, along with the rest of the Cardinal defense. Once the Cards started their big run in the early minutes of the second half, they appeared to take both Syracuse's legs, and its will.
"Syracuse has been my Kryptonite the past couple of years," Siva said. "And I didn't think we'd play them again. Coach had the confidence to leave me in this time and I didn't want to let him down. My shots weren't falling, so I tried to attack. And Montrezl finished a lot of my assists. Even though I get hit a lot on defense, I just want to point out to Coach P that I got a block tonight."
Siva finished with 11 points, 8 rebounds, four assists and his second straight Big East Tournament MVP award. After the presentation, he climbed into the stands to find his parents, to let them hold the trophy while he hugged them.
The only other player to win Big East Tournament MVP twice was Patrick Ewing.
"Just a tremendous game for this young man," Pitino said of Siva. "I told our coaches, Peyton hadn't played well against Syracuse before, I guarantee he plays well tonight. There are very few young men in this business that I've coached who are like him.
". . . If anybody deserves it, it's him. It's an incredible thing."
Even Jay Bilas, via Twitter, offered a tribute: "Over my years in the game, I've been around many terrific players and fine young men, but none finer than Peyton Siva. Respected player."
When Siva is Siva, the Cardinals have a chance to achieve their goal. Chane Behanan chanted that goal after the win, "Six more. Six more. Six more."
The game likely earns U of L not only No. 1 seed respect, and perhaps No. 1 overall seed respect. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Cards in that slot. It could earn them a chance to play close to home, in Lexington in the early rounds and then Indianapolis in the regional.
But beyond that, it earns them a place in the final chapter of the Big East history books as we know them. Only three other teams (Georgetown, Connecticut, Syracuse) have won back-to-back titles. Two of those included a national title in those back-to-back seasons.
With 10 straight wins and its best offensive half of the season the Cardinals appear to be hitting their stride. Syracuse is giving up 59.6 points per game this season. U of L scored 56 -- in the second half -- and outscored the Orange by 30 in the half.
Pitino walked out, and the Cards woke up.
"It was," the coach said, "a real special night for the University of Louisville."
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