Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim preferred to look on the bright side despite all his team’s problems.
Senior leaders Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph struggled. The Orange missed shot after shot.
Only C.J. Fair had an answer against Louisville, which was poised for an upset.
“Our defense was getting crucial stops when we needed them,” Fair said. “And, defense wins games.”
Fair scored 13 points and No. 2 Syracuse scored the final six points of the game to beat the Cardinals 52-51 on Monday night, snapping a seven-game losing streak against Louisville (No. 18 ESPN/USA Today, No. 19 AP) in a game that reminded Boeheim of the NCAA tournament.
“You’re going to get in games like this in the tournament. I don’t care who you are. You’ve got to be ready to be able to make those plays at the end of games,” Boeheim said. “If they make a play, hit one shot, the end, we lose. In the tournament, you go home and you’re going to play teams like Louisville and teams just as good or better.”
Syracuse (26-1, 13-1) is on a roll toward a Big East title and hopes to play for a national championship in April. The Orange proved in this one they could grind out a possession-by-possession battle.
“You can either give the defenses credit or say it was a bad offensive game,” Boeheim said. “We’re going to look on the bright side and say it was a real defensive struggle tonight.”
Louisville (20-6, 8-5) rallied with a 15-2 run to take a 51-46 lead, but the Orange held the Cardinals without a point over the final 3½ minutes and Fair hit the go-ahead layup with 2:11 left.
“It was a defensive battle and they came up with the plays at the end,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “I’m very, very disappointed that we lost the game.”
Fab Melo scored 11 points and the best shooting team in the Big East overcame a 34.4 percent effort, including 1 of 15 from 3-point range, to win for the sixth straight time since losing at Notre Dame.
Jardine missed all eight of his shots and Joseph, Syracuse’s leading scorer, struggled with foul trouble, while Cardinals forward Kyle Kuricwent 1 for 8 from the field, including 1 for 6 from 3-point range.
“I don’t put my head down because I know I’m reliable to make a tough basket at any given time,” Jardine said. “And that’s the same as the other two guards and that’s what happened tonight.”
The Orange came in shooting 48.1 this season, while the Cardinals’ defensive field goal percentage was fourth-best in the nation at 37.2. Neither team could reach that mark against the other’s zone looks.
Freshman Chane Behanan had 16 points and nine rebounds for the Cardinals, who had won six straight conference games.
It was a whiteout at the KFC Yum! Center with 22,738 fans wearing white and Pitino donning his cream-colored suit with a red tie, but it was far from a shootout with both sides struggling from the field.
Brandon Triche scored eight points, while Dion Waiters and Joseph added seven each for the Orange.
Triche hit a jumper — Syracuse’s first field goal outside the paint in the second half and only second of the game — Melo hit two free throws and Fair added a layup to give Syracuse a 52-51 lead with 2:11 left.
“A game like this, going down to the last shot, it’s a game that we’re definitely going to use,” Triche said.
Louisville guard Chris Smith finished with 10 points, while Gorgui Dieng had 10 rebounds and five turnovers, including a costly one late for the Cardinals, who shot 34.7 percent from the field and went 12 of 21 from the free-throw line.
Dieng committed a turnover instead of trying a 15-foot jumper, throwing it away and Smith missed a reverse layup with 57 seconds left.
“Plays like Gorgui not shooting that shot, that bothers me because we work on that every single day for 45 minutes. I don’t care if our guys miss shots,” Pitino said. “When they’re open, they’ve got to shoot the ball. That kind of thing irks the hell out of me.”
Waiters missed a layup with 30 seconds left, giving Louisville a chance at the last shot, but Dieng couldn’t handle a pass from Peyton Siva in the paint and Waiters stole it after it bounced off Triche.
“I just made the wrong decision,” Siva said. “I didn’t see Kyle open in the corner. I won’t make that mistake again.”
Waiters missed a free throw after being fouled and Louisville had 1.1 seconds left and the length of the court to go, but freshman Angel Nunez couldn’t handle a pass from Behanan as time expired.
Louisville trailed 44-36 with 7:31 to play before Behanan sparked a 15-2 run.
On one sequence, he grabbed an offensive rebound for an easy dunk off Kuric’s missed 3-point attempt, stole a pass into the low post from Fair and fed Dieng for an assist on a three-point play that made it 46-all with 4:57 left.
Joseph, who picked up his fourth foul early in the second half, re-entered the game and missed a 3-point attempt. Smith hit one beyond the arc in the right corner for Louisville, and Behanan’s putback of another miss by Smith that gave Louisville a 51-46 lead 3:39 left.
Those would be Louisville’s final points.
“We know we can only beat ourselves,” Jardine said. “We’ve got to continue to play Syracuse basketball and try and gut out wins.”
Photo Credit: Getty Images.