NOT IN THE CARDS: No. 1 Syracuse falls to Louisville, suffers first road loss of season
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Each time Syracuse went to the basket in the second half Saturday, it was to compensate for that certain uneasiness.
A feeling the team hadn’t experienced all year was suddenly evident across the board. Syracuse — trademarked by its cool exterior — was clearly desperate. Nothing seemed to go its way, and it showed.
‘We panicked a little bit,’ Jackson said. ‘We usually don’t panic, and that hurt us a little.’
In the face of a relentless Louisville attack, the sense of maturity and collective poise normally seen from the No. 1 Orange was gone in the midst of an 78-68 loss. The sold-out crowd of 20,135 on hand to see the final game at Louisville’s historic Freedom Hall latched on to a late surge and shook Syracuse out of contention in a game it once had command of. Down the stretch, forced shots and errant passes translated to Cardinals points in a nonstop barrage that spanned nearly nine minutes.
The loss made Syracuse (28-3, 15-3 Big East) the final team in Division I basketball to lose a road game.
‘I think we lost our composure in the second half a lot more than in the first half,’ junior forward Wes Johnson said. ‘It got loud and after that I think we just lost our composure, and that’s something we rarely do and we did today.’
Where it ended was with an emotional Edgar Sosa, beckoning to the Louisville (20-11, 11-7 Big East) student section to storm the court in the last Cardinals game he, and the arena, will ever participate in. Meanwhile, the Orange trudged off to the matchbook-sized visitors’ locker room.
But things were much different in the early going. For the first 30 minutes, the Orange looked as though it was thoroughly prepared for everything Louisville could throw at it.
Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino challenged SU early with a variety of pressure defenses, the same kind that boggled the Orange in its last loss to Louisville on Feb. 14, but this time, it was prepared.
The Orange would instantly break the defense down and find its frontcourt wide open at the end of the flurry. Johnson, Jackson and Arinze Onuaku combined for 21 of the team’s 35 first-half points by converting easy transition baskets off the broken press.
Then, the Cardinals started hitting shots.
Attempting an astounding 40 3-pointers, the baskets Syracuse weren’t counting on began to fall in droves.
‘I think we got a little relaxed defensively,’ SU head coach Jim Boeheim said. ‘They were missing so many shots, I think we thought they were going to miss them all.’
First, it was Louisville forward Samardo Samuels — who had zero points in the first half — hitting a layup and stealing the lead back from the Orange.
When the hesitant defense started, the Cardinals’ offense expanded. Point guards Sosa and Peyton Siva had wide-open shots around the perimeter and a clear passing lane to Samuels and Jared Swopshire.
The sudden lead change left little time for the Orange to adjust and plenty of time for Kyle Kuric to find all the empty spaces left in the SU defense. Though he’d only scored 94 points total this season, Kuric exploded for 22 on the night, piloting the Cardinals’ run.
With each 3, he sent the Freedom Hall crowd into hysteria while the Orange desperately tried to recover. Once it had the ball back on offense, though, possessions were extremely quick — a one-man isolation play toward the basket, or a highly contested jump shot on the block.
‘I thought we rushed our offense a little bit and that led to some missed shots around the basket,’ Boeheim said. ‘… Bottom line, our offense wasn’t good enough in the second half.’
Sitting in the locker room after the game, the Orange realized what had happened. For a team that survived the entire season without a loss on the road, Syracuse figured it’d beaten itself.
Taking things one possession at a time, would things be different? Would dishing the ball instead of taking a high risk be more effective? No way to tell now. But perhaps it was necessary. Learning to deal with it now could be invaluable.
‘I told them we’ll learn from this,’ Boeheim said. ‘There’s some things we can learn from this.’
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