NEW YORK — After a week of nostalgia and remembrance, in this valedictory Big East tournament that reopened and widened memory lane, the final conference tournament championship game boiled down to basketball, plain and simple.
Specifically, triumph resulted from Louisville’s defense, an updated basketball chaos theory that bore little resemblance to the celebrated teams of the conference’s distant past. This was new-school Big East, not a tribute to the 1980s.
Louisville pressed. Louisville pressured. Louisville turned Syracuse’s ballhandlers into a misnomer, in that for a long stretch in the second half the Orange could not handle the ball long enough to get a shot off.
As both teams head to the Atlantic Coast Conference in the next two seasons, the Cardinals earned bragging rights in their final Big East meeting with the Orange. The final tally read 78-61, advantage Louisville, a team that played defense like a painter who splattered streaks all over the canvas.
Syracuse (26-9) might have lost more than the game, too. Late in the second half, guard Michael Carter-Williams fell to the floor, clutching his right ankle. He would return, albeit gingerly.
Louisville (29-5) entered the finale favored, but the Cardinals needed more than four minutes to put a digit on the scoreboard while Syracuse shot to an 8-0 advantage.
James Southerland broke the Big East tournament record for 3-pointers early, with his 17th and 18th long-distance baskets of the week.
As soon as the Cardinals closed that gap, Carter-Williams seized control. By the time teammate C.J. Fair knocked down a triple from the left corner, the Orange had split open a 35-20 lead. But it did not feel safe.
The Cardinals reached four of the previous five conference championships and won the title last season before making a run to the Final Four. The last team to repeat as champions? Syracuse, in 2005 and 2006.
The Orange sputtered at the end of the regular season, so much so that coach Jim Boeheim joked Friday that he tasted dirt as pundits began to lower the coffin on Syracuse’s season. But the Orange tend to elevate at Madison Square Garden, and elevate they did, besting Seton Hall, Pittsburgh, and Georgetown in succession. Louisville, meanwhile, steamrolled back into the title game, topping Villanova and Notre Dame.
As the second half began, the Cardinals continued to threaten a comeback. Syracuse continued to push its lead. Fair took his turn early in the half, connecting on a long jump shot and a 3-pointer, which Southerland followed with yet another triple (Syracuse’s eighth) that extended the lead to 45-29. Rick Pitino called time out. The Cardinals slunk to their bench.
Louisville was not done. Not by a long shot. Russ Smith, playing in honor of Jack Curran, his high school coach at Archbishop Molloy in New York who died this week, tossed in a 3-pointer. Then hulking forward Stephan Van Treese, shaped like a linebacker, tipped in a miss. Suddenly, the Syracuse lead had dwindled to 45-39.
The Cardinals swung momentum with their strength — defense.
As the second half unfolded, that pressure fazed Syracuse, which handled the basketball as if someone had slathered it in butter. The Cardinals turned those turnovers into points. Four straight Luke Hancock free throws and a Kevin Ware 3-pointer made the score 56-48 in favor of Louisville, which had ripped off a 13-0 run.
It seemed fair to wonder at that point not when Syracuse would make its next shot, but when it would next attempt one.
When it ended, Louisville players mobbed each other on the court, surrounded by television cameras, as they passed out championship hats and hoisted cheerleaders on their shoulders. The Orange headed toward their locker room. Both teams will figure next week in the NCAA Tournament, Louisville likely as a No. 1 seed.