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Louisville’s improbable rally nets Big East tournament title

PeytSivLuke Hancock

Peyton Siva, Luke Hancock

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Updated: April 18, 2013 7:15AM

NEW YORK — Louisville stole the show in the last “old-school” Big East tournament, staging a second-half comeback in Madison Square Garden that was worthy of the storied conference’s best traditions.

Down by 16 points, the Cardinals held Syracuse to one field goal in the last 13 minutes on Saturday night to post a gritty 78-61 victory and repeat as conference-tournament champions.

After junior C.J. Fair’s tip-in with 12:54 left put the Orange ahead 47-39, they wouldn’t score again from the field until 1:48 was left on Fair’s three-pointer. By then, the Cardinals led 73-58 and had started their bench celebration.

“It shows what heart we have,’’ said senior star Peyton Siva, who was a master of theft again with four of the team’s 11 steals — a key to the remarkable comeback.

The victory assures the Cardinals of a No. 1 seed today in the NCAA tournament, perhaps the edge they will need to go the step beyond last year’s Final Four.

The Cardinals got 20 points off the bench from forward Montrezl Harrell, who was a first-half key to keeping them within sight of the Orange, who controlled the first half to the delight of their thousands of fans filling the arena.

“A tremendous performance by [Harrell],’’ said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who admitted to being sentimental about winning the last game in the conference’s tournament history in the Garden.

Fair led all scorers with 21, but Louisville’s second half rebounding — including 18 on the offensive boards — changed the outcome.

“We played as well in New York as we could have hoped for, to try to get ourselves back on track,’’ Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said, whose team came into the tournament having lost four of their last five.

The Orange defeated Pittsburgh and top seed Georgetown to reach the final, “but Louisville is the hardest team for us to play on the fourth day,’’ Boeheim said. “You have to give Louisville tremendous credit because they’re one of the best pressing teams in the country.’’

Pitino pointed to his team’s “grit’’ in scoring 56 second-half points after tallying 22 in the first half.

“Siva had an incredible tournament,’’ Pitino said of his point guard. “He hasn’t had good games against Syracuse, but I told my assistants before the game, ‘I guarantee he’ll play well tonight.’ ’’

The game was a hot ticket in New York not only because it was the last Big East tournament game in the 32-year history of the league, but because Syracuse was participating. With its vast state-wide alumni base, the Garden stands were filled almost exclusively with orange.

“We knew we’ll be playing a ‘road game,’ ’’ said Pitino, who gained familiarity with the Garden as coach of the New York Knicks from 1987-1989.

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