NEW YORK — Syracuse had a huge lead in the second half and was in perfect position to say goodbye to the Big East with a bang.
It all slipped away so fast.
Lightning fast, like those Louisville guards.
In their final Big East appearance before bolting to the ACC next season, the 19th-ranked Orange wilted against Louisville’s relentless pressure defense and squandered a 16-point advantage during a 78-61 defeat in the conference championship game Saturday night.
It was by far the biggest collapse in title game history at the Big East tournament, which began in 1980. Not exactly how longtime coach Jim Boeheim and fifth-seeded Syracuse, a conference power from beginning to end, wanted to leave.
After it was over and the Cardinals had secured their second consecutive tournament championship, Boeheim was asked what he was thinking as he walked off the court at Madison Square Garden.
“Just how badly we handled their pressure was the only thing I was thinking about, and we’ve got to get ready and get to the airport,” said Boeheim, hardly in the mood for nostalgia.
“Those were the two thoughts I had. All of the other stuff I’ve been thinking about for two years, and I said it all. I’m not going to repeat it all again tonight.”
Peyton Siva had 11 points and eight assists to lead No. 4 Louisville (29-5).
The second-seeded Cardinals won their third title in five years by taking charge with a 27-3 run after James Southerland’s 3-pointer put Syracuse (26-9) up 45-29 with 15:48 to play. It took them less than six minutes to wipe out the deficit, and they took their first lead of the game at 49-48 with 9:50 remaining.
“We didn’t make some smart plays at the end,” Southerland said. “We didn’t take advantage of our lead and move the ball around like we should have.”
Louisville kept pouring it on, creating 20 turnovers with its full-court press. In a flash, the Cardinals were up by 18 with 2:03 to go after outscoring the rattled Orange 44-10 in a span of nearly 14 minutes.
“It was probably the worst thing to happen to get up 15,” Boeheim said. “If we hadn’t played well and we were up four or five, they probably wouldn’t have done that. But that’s what they had to do at that point to go after it, and that was exactly what I would have tried to do, and that’s what they did, and they’re good at it.”
Siva joined Georgetown center Patrick Ewing in 1984 and 1985 as the only repeat tournament MVP selections.
“I don’t know how I am in the same sentence as Patrick Ewing,” he said.
Louisville, which shared the regular-season championship with Georgetown and Marquette, won its 10th straight game.
Syracuse was hoping to leave New York with its sixth Big East tournament title before it heads down to Tobacco Road. The Cardinals will join the Orange in the ACC the following season, but it was this game that signified the end of the current Big East era.
Seven basketball-centric Catholic schools are breaking off to form a new conference next season. They will keep the Big East name and are expected to continue playing their league tournament at Madison Square Garden.