Overview: Here's the thing: If you sat down to watch Syracuse-Louisville expecting a free-flowing, finesse, up-tempo game of basketball, then you don't know much about either team. This was always going to be a defensive struggle. Louisville, the No. 1-ranked per-possession defense in the country facing Syracuse's classic 2-3 zone defense -- the winner was always going to be a matter of attrition.
Even by those standards, this was ugly. Some of that was by design; the Cardinals excel at making opponents uncomfortable on both ends of the floor, and the Orange zone is anathema to a Louisville team that already shoots just 32 percent from beyond the arc. But some of it was the fault, it must be said, of ugly offense and poor officiating, of a slappy and sloppy physical game and of a group of officials placed in the position of regulating all of it.
The end result was a 58-53 Cardinals win in the Carrier Dome. Whatever the aesthetics, Louisville fans won't mind: They got a bit of retribution for Syracuse's win in Louisville earlier this season and a bit of separation between the now 12-4 Cardinals and 10-6 Orange in the race for the Big East title.
Turning point: Late in the game, after a mostly frustrating 35 minutes of offense, it looked as if Louisville was finally set to pull away. Up 44-40, Russ Smith penetrated and found forward Luke Hancock open on the left wing. Hancock buried the 3, and Louisville took a seven-point lead -- a seemingly insurmountable margin in this game -- as Louisville coach Rick Pitino pumped his fist and screamed "Let's go! Let's go!" well in range of the CBS television cameras. Syracuse called timeout.
The only problem? Louisville fouled too often. The Orange came out of that timeout already in the bonus, and Smith, trying to get in to Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams, committed a foul within the first few seconds of the ball being inbounded. That resulted in a walk downcourt and two free throws for Carter-Williams. That was followed by an MCW drive for two over Gorgui Dieng -- a brilliant left-handed floating finish -- and, on the next possession, another pair of free throws. That was the downside to Louisville's physical play. All day the referees were determined to make calls (on both ends), and the Cardinals often hurt themselves with contact in the bonus. It was a leveling force.
In the end, Louisville finally broke away with another Smith-to-Hancock kickout 3 with just under a minute to play. The Cardinals got stops and turnovers on the other end, knocked down free throws and held on despite a couple of last-ditch attempts by the Orange. It was a quality win, and a big one. Just not a very fun one to watch.
Why Louisville won/Why Syracuse lost: Key plays in winning time. It's not like there was much separation here: The Cardinals shot 18-of-50, the Orange 20-of-56. Louisville made three more of its 3s, including that Hancock bucket that made it 51-48, and in the final minute, Louisville got stops and rebounds while Syracuse didn't get buckets. It was that simple.
Star of the game: Gorgui Dieng. Dieng's 11 points and 14 rebounds were crucial, and he was the first line of defense against the Orange's array of lanky combo forwards. But his passing from the high post against the zone -- a new skill in Dieng's arsenal -- was particularly impressive.
Stat of the game: Louisville shot just 14-of-24 from the free throw line and still won on the road. Some might use that as an indictment of Syracuse; I think it's a testament to Louisville's defense. Maybe it's both.
What it means for Louisville: It means a clear push away from Syracuse and into the elite area, alongside Georgetown and Marquette, where true Big East title contenders lurk. It also means an extra tick on the box for NCAA tournament seeding and revenge for the thrilling loss Syracuse dealt the Cardinals earlier this season.
What it means for Syracuse: It's just a loss, and that's probably the message Jim Boeheim will deliver to his team. But for fans, it might be something more, yet another data point that this Orange team is struggling in significant ways (particularly on the offensive end), having lost three straight.
What's next: Louisville is home against Cincinnati on Monday before its season-ending home tilt against Notre Dame; Syracuse gets a deep breath when DePaul comes to town Wednesday in advance of next Saturday's massive season- and series-ending rivalry game at Georgetown.