- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
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NEW YORK -- When the final horn sounded -- when the comeback was complete, when the championship was secured -- Russ Smith made a beeline for the TV camera, wagging his right index finger in front of his face.
New Yorkers like the spotlight, and Smith is no exception.
The spotlight couldn't have been brighter at Madison Square Garden this week, particularly Saturday night, as we all said goodbye to the Big East conference as we know it.
It was only fitting that two New York City kids were among the brightest stars on the stage.
Smith had scored a combined 48 points in Louisville’s quarterfinal and semifinal victories over Villanova and Notre Dame, respectively.
James Southerland had poured in 53 in the three wins that landed Syracuse in the championship game.
An undersized two-guard from Brooklyn and an oversized three-man from Queens, Smith and Southerland figured to play prominent roles in the tournament finale.
And they did.
Southerland struck first -- and made history in the process. The 6-foot-8 senior with the smooth stroke from the perimeter drained his first 3-point attempt of the game, less than three minutes in, giving Syracuse an early 6-0 lead.
It was Southerland’s 17th 3-ball of the week, breaking the record held by former Syracuse guard and current assistant coach Gerry McNamara, as well as former Connecticut guard Albert Mouring.
Southerland hit another one from deep before halftime, and his third triple of the game gave Syracuse its largest lead, 45-29, with 15:51 remaining. He appeared to be on his way to garnering tournament MVP honors.
Seventeen seconds later, he headed to the bench with his fourth foul, and everything changed.
Smith, on the other hand, was practically invisible in the first half. The 6-foot dynamo shot 0-for-4 from the field, collecting just two points from the foul line. But you figured he’d find a way to get involved in the second half.
It didn’t take long. He connected on his first attempt after intermission, from beyond the arc. And when Louisville scored 10 consecutive points following Southerland’s fourth foul, Smith was involved as well, canning another trey.
The Cardinals eventually surged to the lead, thanks to their smothering full-court pressure. The Orange wilted, at both handling the ball and shooting free throws. The game, shockingly, turned into a rout in Louisville’s favor.
Smith, who finished with 10 points, 3 assists and 3 rebounds, was emotional after the game. He has been playing all week in honor of former high school coach, the legendary Jack Curran, who passed away days earlier at age 82.
“It’s been just a roller-coaster ride. Especially since the loss of a guy like that, it’s had a tremendous effect on me,” Smith said. “But wining this tournament cured a lot of the sadness I had, and I’m playing in his name.”
Southerland, who finished with nine points and eight rebounds, lamented what might have been.
“I just feel like we kind of made it -- 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 coach Rick Pitino was thrilled for Smith, and the rest of his team.
“I’m really excited for them that they can be part of basketball history,” Pitino said. “I’m really happy that the basketball history took place at Madison Square Garden. And I’m really excited we could do it in (Big East founder) Dave Gavitt’s memory, and now Jack Curran’s for Russ Smith. It meant a lot for Russ to play well, and he certainly did.”
This was the 34th Big East tournament, and the 31st played at Madison Square Garden. There will be a Big East, and a Big East tournament, next season -- but we all know it’ll never be quite the same.
St. John’s, the city’s team, won the first Big East tourney played at the Garden, back in 1983. But the Red Storm haven’t played in the championship game since 2000, and were eliminated from this tournament on the first full day.
Someone had to step up to represent the five boroughs.
In the end, two did the job.
The 2013 Big East tournament will be remembered for the classic Syracuse-Georgetown semifinal, and the stunning Louisville comeback in the title game.
But this New Yorker, raised on Big East basketball, will also never forget James Southerland and Russ Smith.
They might not be superstars. Far greater players have played on this stage.
But they were the final act. And they did their hometown proud.