Syracuse and Louisville are two of the football schools responsible for the demise of the Big East because they are heading to the ACC, but their basketball coaches, Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino, never wanted the greatest hoops conference in America to die.
So they will be as nostalgic as anyone at Madison Square Garden Saturday night when they meet in the "last" championship game. After Boeheim's Orange (26-8) advanced with an overtime upset of top-seeded Georgetown, Pitino's second-seeded Cardinals (28-5) relied on guards Russ Smith and Peyton Siva to lead them past Notre Dame, 69-57, in the late semifinal to set up a dream matchup.
The two coaches are famously volatile, and they even exchanged potshots at media day before the season began. But the final will be decided by defense, not words.
The Cardinals reached the Final Four last season, and the way Smith and Siva have been going, they just might earn a No. 1 seed and make a return trip. Notre Dame (25-9) hung tough most of the game, but when the Irish cut their deficit to 45-41, Louisville's backcourt turned it up a notch.
A 14-5 run pushed Louisville's lead to 59-46, putting the game out of reach. Smith, who totaled 20 points and six assists, had seven points and one assist in that stretch, and Siva had a basket and two steals before finishing with 12 points, six assists and seven steals. Jack Cooley and Jerian Grant led Notre Dame with 14 points apiece.
Pitino praised Siva as the best person he's coached along with current Florida coach Billy Donovan. Certainly, Siva was the key to Louisville's pressing defense. "I just had the right rotations from watching film," Siva said. "The ball just came to me. Around this time of year, Coach pushes us to bring our game to a high level. These three days are like practice for us because we're used to getting up and down."