Jim Boeheim hoped to finish what he helped start 34 years ago when the Big East Conference was born. The Syracuse coach is the last man standing, the only survivor from the original lineup in 1979, but he was denied a sixth tournament title Saturday night by his former assistant and longtime rival, Rick Pitino, as Louisville overcame a 16-point second-half deficit for a 78-61 victory at Madison Square Garden.
The reconstituted Big East returns to the Garden next season with seven of the old basketball schools, including St. John's. But the football schools are going in different directions. Boeheim and Syracuse head to the Atlantic Coast Conference in the fall, and Pitino and Louisville will spend a year in limbo with the remnants of the Big East football schools before joining Boeheim in the ACC in 2014.
So their meeting in the last "original Big East" Tournament final really was a last call for legends. It was Boeheim's record 15th final appearance and the third in four years for Pitino, who also beat Boeheim in their only previous final clash in 2009.
"I'm very excited and sentimental about what happened tonight," Pitino said. "To come back like that shows tremendous heart. I'm really happy the basketball history took place in Madison Square Garden."
The win should earn a No. 1 seed for Louisville in the NCAA Tournament, possibly even the top seed.
"I'd say we probably will be No. 1 of the No. 1s because of our strength of schedule," said Pitino, whose team made the Final Four last season, where it lost to eventual national champion Kentucky in the semifinals. "But it's not a big deal."
The way the Cardinals (29-5) came from 16 down against Syracuse (25-9), however, was a very impressive deal. Boeheim noted that his team, as the fifth overall seed, was playing for the fourth straight day compared with three games for second-seeded Louisville.
"I think Louisville's the hardest team for us to play at the end of four days," Boeheim said. "They are, in my mind, one of the best pressing teams in the country. I thought they were the best team in the league from the beginning of the year, and they proved that today."
It was a stunning turnaround. Louisville freshman Montrezl Harrell scored 14 of his game-high 20 points in the second half and also had seven rebounds. Point guard Peyton Siva, the tournament MVP, said Syracuse had been "my kryptonite" in the past, but he had 11 points, eight assists and four steals. Russ Smith and Luke Hancock each had 10 points, and the Cardinals built a 32-11 advantage in points off turnovers.
C.J. Fair topped Syracuse with 21 points and Michael Carter-Williams had 11 points and nine assists to go with four turnovers. Guard Brandon Triche had 10 points but also committed seven of the Orange's 20 turnovers against Louisville's pressure.
Early in the second half, Syracuse forward James Southerland hit his third three-pointer of the game to push his Big East Tournament record total to 19, three more than the previous record set by Orange assistant coach Gerry McNamara. That gave Syracuse its biggest lead at 45-29.
The fizz in Louisville's defense seemed to have gone flat, but Pitino's Cardinals went to the well and opened another bottle of defensive intensity. At one point, they forced Syracuse to commit eight turnovers in a span of 10 possessions. That was the catalyst that launched an epic 29-4 run that gave Louisville a 58-49 lead.
When it was over, Boeheim wasn't exactly in a sentimental mood.
"All the other stuff I've been thinking about for two years, and I said it all," Boeheim said. "I'm not going to repeat it all again tonight."
Bon voyage, Big East.