Even Tinkerbell runs out of pixie dust.
In a marquee Monday night matchup that drew more than 25,000 fans to the Carrier Dome, Syracuse picked up its slingshot and took aim at another Goliath. A win over Louisville would have been the Orange’s third over a top-10 team this season — a season that looked dead in the water less than a month ago. But a trio of top-10 wins would be nearly impossible for the NCAA Tournament selection committee to ignore.
But SU must have used up all of its magic in miraculous wins over NC State, Clemson, and Virginia during the recent five-game win streak that revived its Big Dance chances, because the most recent nail-biter ended in heartbreak. The Cardinals fended off countless jabs from a desperate home team and escaped with a 76-72 win in an overtime slugfest.
“We’ve been down in four or five situations, and we’ve won them all — until tonight,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said after the game. “That’s not easy to do. We probably should have lost two or three of those games that we won — at least.”
From the opening tip, Louisville was the better team. If the Cardinals defense isn’t the best in the nation (No. 2 in defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com), it’s certainly the most versatile. More than any other team in the land, Louisville can throw several different looks at opponents, each equally tenacious: a havoc-wreaking press, a slow and grinding press, a 2-3 matchup zone, a suffocating man-to-man, and more. Tonight, Rick Pitino opted to copy Syracuse’s defensive scheme — but not to a T.
“It’s a lot different,” SU point guard Franklin Howard explained. “They switch everything, kind of a matchup; almost a man-to-man, but playing in their area. So, they’re passing guys off. Ours is more joined up together, taking away shots. We all have our assignments. They’re kind of playing man, and just playing around their area, so that’s really difficult, especially if you’re struggling shooting the ball from the perimeter.”
To say the Orange was “struggling shooting the ball from the perimeter” is a colossal understatement. Against a Cardinals defense that essentially built a forcefield around the 3-point arc, Syracuse shot just 8-for-34 (23.5 percent) from downtown, rendering its offense almost completely feeble in the early goings. As he often does, sophomore forward Tyler Lydon came to the rescue, igniting an 8-0 run to close the first half that cut the deficit to 29-25 as the teams went to the locker rooms.
But, as he often does, Lydon almost completely disappeared in the final 20 minutes, scoring a measly three points on just three shot attempts after halftime. Fortunately for the Orange, Andrew White III picked up right where Lydon left off; the grad transfer’s final line (7-24 FG, 2-14 3PT) looks ugly, but he buried a few enormous shots down the stretch, and scored 11 of SU’s 14 points in overtime.
John Gillon, who can challenge White for the team moniker of “Mr. Clutch,” drilled a pair of 3-pointers that made the extra period possible. Just like his fellow grad transfer, Gillon struggled throughout the night (1-9 FG outside of those two triples), but found the mark when it mattered most.
After the game, Boeheim did something nearly unprecedented: he went out of his way to praise his players.
“These guys fight,” said the legend. “They fight as hard as you can fight. When you’re down against Louisville, by seven, eight, nine points, and come back, and have a chance to actually win the game? That’s an unbelievable effort, there. And then we’re down nine, or something, in overtime, and we get it to two? Louisville’s a top-10 team — top-five, maybe. That’s an unbelievable accomplishment to come back like that against a team like that. It was an unbelievable effort; a Herculean effort.”
Ultimately, it wasn’t enough against a Cardinals team that could probably lock down the Monstars from Space Jam and may be the most consistently elite team in the entire country. Louisville hasn’t lost to a squad outside KenPom’s top-25 and isn’t at risk of falling victim to an off-shooting day, because it depends on a stingy defense instead of a prolific offense; defense-first teams are typically more reliable than those that try to outscore opponents on a nightly basis. You don’t have to tell that to Boeheim.
“If we win a game, it’s because we outscore somebody,” Boeheim lamented. “We cannot get a stop.”
On Monday night, Syracuse did get a few stops. But for the first time this season, in crunch time, the other team got a few more. The Orange is no longer perfect at home. It no longer feels like a team of destiny. The season is far from over, but a win over the Cardinals would have gone a long way toward a ticket to the Tournament. Sure, the comebacks (plural) against Louisville were incredible and encouraging. But, as the players said in unison after the game, moral victories don’t exist at this point of the season.