College Basketball Nation: 2013 Big East tournament

NEW YORK -- Rick Pitino made the decision not to cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden, even though they were pretty nifty souvenirs -- the last nets from the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.

He told his Louisville team after it played team swap with Syracuse, turning a 16-point deficit into a 78-61 rout, that he didn't think it needed to. The Cardinals cut them down last year, after all, when they also won the Big East tournament.

Pitino was careful as he explained his reasoning, starting, stopping and choosing his words deliberately so as to relay the sentiment without sounding overly cocky about it.

"I told them, look, there are no guarantees. We could lose in the first round," Pitino said. "But let's see if we can't do something special. If it happens, it happens. If not, we haven't missed too much."

There is no need for such political correctness.

At a hotel bunker in Indianapolis on Sunday, the NCAA tournament selection committee will meet to parse through the carcass and attempt to put order in the form of a bracket to the runaway train that has been the 2012-13 college basketball season.

Four teams will emerge as the favorites to win the championship because the process demands that there be four No. 1 seeds. Someone -- maybe Louisville, maybe Indiana -- will be dubbed the overall No. 1, given the slightest edge over its peers.

I'd like to save the committee some time and hard work and I'd like to say what Pitino could not.

There is one best team in the country right now and it is the University of Louisville.

For Dana O'Neil's full column, click here.
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.

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
Chris Chambers/Getty ImagesRuss Smith scored 10 points on 2-of-8 shooting but left with a second straight tourney title.
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.

[+] EnlargeJames Southerland
Chris Chambers/Getty ImagesJames Southerland had 9 points and 8 rebounds but also 4 turnovers in Syracuse's defeat.
“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.

NEW YORK -- Reaction from Louisville's 78-61 victory over Syracuse in the Big East tournament title game.

What it means: The Big East went out with a bang.

In the final game before the conference splinters, Louisville made a stunning comeback to defeat Syracuse and win the Big East tournament for the second year in a row.

The Cardinals (29-5, 14-4), the regular season co-champions along with Georgetown and Marquette, have won 10 games in a row. Louisville is now a virtual lock to receive a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi predicts the Cardinals will be the No. 1 overall seed in the entire field.

The Orange (26-9, 11-7), who had lost four of five to end the regular season, won three games here in New York, but this will be a tough one to get over. Syracuse was projected to be a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament by Lunardi prior to the championship game.

The turning point: Syracuse took control of this game early. C.J. Fair and James Southerland opened the game with 3-pointers, and the Orange went in front 8-0. Louisville closed to within two, 17-15, on a pair of Peyton Siva free throws. But the Orange outscored the Cardinals 18-7 the rest of the first half. Fair hit another trey with 50 seconds remaining and Siva scored in the closing seconds to make it 35-22 at intermission.

Syracuse took its largest lead of the game, 45-29, on another Southerland trey with 15:51 remaining. Seventeen seconds later, Southerland headed to the bench after picking up his fourth foul. The game completely turned from there. Louisville scored 10 straight points to get back in it and just kept on coming, even after Southerland returned. The Orange completely melted under the Cardinals' swarming pressure defense, and they were terrible from the foul line. Syracuse went more than 11 minutes without a field goal, and Louisville outscored them 56-26 in the second half.

Star watch: Freshman forward Montrezl Harrell, who was averaging just 5.2 points in 16.3 minutes per game, poured in a game-high 20 points -- 14 of them coming in the second half. He also had seven rebounds. Siva added 11 points and eight assists, and Russ Smith chipped in 10. Gorgui Dieng had a near triple-double -- 9 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists.

Fair, after a woeful 3-for-16 shooting night in the semifinals, scored a game-high 21 points for Syracuse, shooting 7-for-10. Michael Carter-Williams had 11 points and nine assists. Southerland finished with nine points, on three treys, and set a new Big East tournament record with 19 made 3-pointers.

Number crunch: Syracuse shot 12-for-26 from the foul line -- awful. And the Orange committed 20 turnovers, 13 of them coming in the second half. Louisville outscored Syracuse on points off turnovers, 32-11.

What's next: Selection Sunday, and the NCAA tournament.
NEW YORK -- This last run of the Big East tournament as we know it has been all about the old teams, the stalwarts from the league’s beginning either moving on or rebuilding the league in its own original image.

Except a funny thing has happened while everyone has been mourning the past and wondering about the future: A young'un from the Big East, a whippersnapper if you will, is taking its share of the last rays of the spotlight.

Louisville, born into the Big East in 2005 and set to expire in 2014, beat Notre Dame 69-57 on Friday night to advance to the Big East tournament final. The Cardinals, the relative newbies, will take on Big East original Syracuse in what, thanks to the twisted world of conference realignment, will be an ACC game in two years.

That makes four appearances in the final game in New York in the past five years for the Cardinals, a run that is rare for anyone in this brutal league and unprecedented among the current nouveau riche of the team roster.

[+] EnlargePeyton Siva
Debby Wong/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Siva had 7 steals and 6 assists to go along with his 12 points in Friday's win.
“I honestly don’t know why it is," coach Rick Pitino said. “I know we put a lot of emphasis on it. It means a lot to us, and at this time of the season we allow them to take some chances offensively, to not be conservative. I think that helps. But maybe it’s just because it means a lot."

It’s interesting that it’s Pitino who is orchestrating this new-kid-on-the-block run.

He is seen now as a pillar of the league, but back when, he was just a kid coach trying to prove his worth. This is where he did it, cutting his teeth at Providence. He was a young interloper -- so young that plenty of the coaches he was going up against tried to recruit him. They were the Mount Rushmore of the profession, he the unproven rookie.

Pitino held his own in meetings -- memorably going toe-to-toe with Rollie Massimino in one that still ranks in the story files -- and held his own on the court, too, taking the Friars to the Final Four in 1987.

So in a lot of ways, his team’s run here is a lot like his own. The Cardinals came into the Big East with plenty of name cachet thanks to the history carved by Denny Crum, but they were Southerners crashing the Yankee party, unknown entities who had to prove they could hang in a conference that prided itself on physical play.

And now here they are, playing in their eighth tournament, already trying to win their third title.

By any measure of history, those are pretty good numbers.

Asked what it’s like to "own the tournament," Peyton Siva smiled.

“I hope we own it tomorrow,’’ the Louisville guard said. “Coach really pushes us to bring our game up to a higher level. Throughout the year, we’re still trying to figure out our defenses and our offenses. We work so hard and condition so much that these three days are just like three days of practice. We’re used to it."

For Louisville on Saturday, this game will be about more than just sweet nostalgia. The Cardinals are in position to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament -- with Duke’s loss to Maryland, they might already have locked one up -- but this entire week has been about memory lane and sentiment.

It’s no different for the Cards.

Louisville will be in The Conference To Be Named Later for one more season before jumping ship to the ACC. Its attachment to the Big East isn’t quite as deep as that of the others who are leaving, but the Cardinals nonetheless can leave an indelible mark on the league.

“This is the last Big East tournament game to be played," Pitino said. “Whoever wins, they’re going to be the answer to a trivia question for a long, long time."

NEW YORK -- A quick look at the Louisville Cardinals' 69-57 victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to advance to the Big East tournament finals.

What it means: Louisville is one victory away from winning the Big East tournament for the second year in a row. Notre Dame was eliminated in the semifinals for the fourth consecutive year.

The No. 4-ranked Cardinals (28-5) have now won nine straight games since losing to the Fighting Irish in that five-overtime classic back on Feb. 9. If Louisville wins Saturday, it almost certainly will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Notre Dame (25-9), ranked No. 24, heads home disappointed, but helped its cause by upsetting No. 12 Marquette in the quarterfinals Thursday. The Fighting Irish were projected to receive a No. 6 seed in the Big Dance in the latest edition of ESPN.com's Bracketology.

This was also Notre Dame's final game as a member of the Big East. The Fighting Irish will play in the ACC next season. Louisville will join them the following season.

The turning point: Peyton Siva nailed a 3-pointer on the very first possession of the game, Louisville went ahead by as many as seven, and led almost the entire first half. Notre Dame briefly tied the game at 22, on a Garrick Sherman bucket with 6:03 remaining. But the Cardinals outscored the Fighting Irish 10-3 the rest of the way. Luke Hancock drilled a trey from the corner before the buzzer, giving Louisville a 32-25 halftime lead.

Notre Dame drew within three points on three separate occasions early in the second half. And trailing 45-41 with 6:58 remaining, Eric Atkins missed the front end of a 1-and-1, with a chance to cut the lead to two. The Fighting Irish drew no closer. The dagger was another Hancock 3-pointer with 4:09 left, pushing the lead to double digits for the first time, 55-44. Louisville put the game away from there.

Star watch: Russ Smith, who had 28 points in Louisville's quarterfinal win over Villanova, scored 20 more on Friday to lead the Cardinals. Siva added 12, and he also had 6 assists and 7 steals. Gorgui Dieng had 8 points, 12 rebound and 4 blocked shots.

Jack Cooley and Jerian Grant scored 14 points apiece for Notre Dame.

Number crunch: Notre Dame committed 16 turnovers -- nine fewer than Villanova committed against Louisville on Thursday. But the Fighting Irish shot just 36.5 percent from the field (19-for-52), while Louisville shot 45.5 percent (25-for-55). It's the sixth consecutive contest the Cardinals have held their opponent under 40 percent. Louisville, arguably the best defensive team in the country, is on top of its game.

What's next: The Cardinals, the No. 2 seed in this tournament, will play No. 5 seed Syracuse in the title game. Tip-off is at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday.

The Fighting Irish head back to South Bend and start preparing for the Big Dance.

NEW YORK -- A quick look at the Syracuse's 58-55 overtime win over Georgetown in the semifinals of the Big East tournament.

What it means: It doesn't get any better than that.

Georgetown and Syracuse, the two longtime archrivals, met one last time as fellow members of the Big East conference Friday night. And after 45 thrilling minutes, Syracuse had landed the final punch.

In a game that will be talked about for years to come, played in front of a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden, the Orange defeated the Hoyas to advance to this year's Big East championship game.

No. 19 Syracuse (26-8, 11-7), which had lost four of five games prior to tournament, has now won three games in three days, previously defeating Seton Hall and Pittsburgh. The Orange will be a higher seed in the NCAA tournament as a result. And they've gotten some revenge after losing to the Hoyas twice in the regular season -- both times by double digits.

No. 5 Georgetown (25-6, 14-4), which had won 13 of its past 14 games, will no longer contend for a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance after this loss. But the Hoyas will still get a very high seed and will be a force to be reckoned with.

How it happened: Georgetown drew first blood. Otto Porter Jr. scored the first bucket of the game and the Hoyas went in front by as many as five and maintained the lead for almost the entire first 12 minutes. But a James Southerland 3-pointer pulled Syracuse even, 17 apiece, with 8:04 remaining in the first half. That was the first three points of a 13-0 run, making it 27-17, as Georgetown went nearly eight minutes without scoring a point. Freshman guard Trevor Cooney, who averaged 3.5 points in 11.7 minutes per game, scored 10 first-half points for the Orange, including a pair of 3s. Syracuse led 29-20 at intermission.

Georgetown gradually clawed its way back in the second half. Mikael Hopkins scored the Hoyas' first seven points, and then Markel Starks buried three 3-pointers in short order. Georgetown finally tied the game up, 49 all with 1:48 left in regulation, on a pair of Jabril Trawick free throws. Baye Keita drained both ends of a 1-and-1 to put Syracuse back in front 51-49, but then Porter also made both ends with 7 seconds left to tie the game again. Michael Carter-Williams missed a jumper at the buzzer and we moved on to overtime.

Syracuse's Brandon Triche scored the first two points of OT on a driving layup, and then Starks fouled out with 3:36 remaining -- a big blow to Georgetown. With 18 seconds left and the Orange in front 57-55, Triche was fouled. He made the first, but missed the second, giving the Hoyas another chance to tie. But after a timeout, Porter was smothered defensively and turned the ball over. With four seconds left, Fair went to the foul line, but missed both free throws. Georgetown rebounded, but Trawick's half-court heave at the buzzer was off the mark.

Star watch: Triche, Southerland and Keita each scored 13 points for Syracuse. Triche scored 11 of his 13 after halftime. Southerland drained four 3-pointers, giving him 16 for the tournament -- that ties the tourney record. Keita, who averages just 3.3 points per game and was shooting just 48.6 percent from the foul line, made all seven of his attempts from the charity stripe.

Hopkins had 15 points to lead Georgetown. Starks scored 13 and Porter added 12.

Number crunch: In a box score that reveals a very even game, two things stand out. Syracuse was a little better from beyond the arc, shooting 7-for-18 (38.9 percent); Georgetown was 4-for-18 (22.2 percent). Even more important, Syracuse was 13-for-19 from the foul line (68.4 percent). Georgetown, on the other hand, was just 11-for-20 (55 percent).

What's next: Syracuse, the No. 5 seed, will play No. 2 seed Louisville on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET. Georgetown heads home, licks its wounds and begins preparing for the Big Dance.

Video: Katz talks with victorious Irish

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Andy Katz talks with Pat Connaughton and Mike Brey after Notre Dame dispatches Marquette and advances to face Louisville on Friday.

Video: Notre Dame 73, Marquette 65

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Pat Connaughton scored 18 points and No. 24 Notre Dame advanced to the Big East semifinals for the sixth time in school history with the 73-65 win over No. 12 Marquette.
NEW YORK -- The Big Apple didn’t get to see its hometown team play in the Big East quarterfinals Thursday night.

Louisville versus Villanova was a pretty darn good consolation prize.

No, the game wasn’t a nailbiter. In fact, it was all but over midway through the second half. But a packed house at Madison Square Garden got to watch a national championship contender at the absolute peak of its powers.

Villanova, which took out St. John’s 24 hours earlier to earn a spot in the quarters and had beaten Louisville in late January, was no match for Rick Pitino’s club this night, falling 74-55.

[+] EnlargeLouisville's Russ Smith
Al Bello/Getty ImagesLouisville's Russ Smith scored 21 of his 28 points against Villanova after halftime.
“We lost last time around for three reasons,” Pitino said. “We missed free throws, didn’t guard the 3-point line, and didn’t cause enough havoc. Tonight we did all three.”

“Havoc” doesn’t nearly do it justice. Louisville led by only nine at the half, 30-21, but it felt like a lot more. That’s what happens when you watch a team commit 18 turnovers in just 20 minutes.

“I think we were just very intense,” Pitino said. “We were really quick. We’re fast.”

Villanova committed only seven more turnovers in the second half. But the Cardinals stepped it up at the other end. After shooting just 35.7 percent (10-for-28) before the break, the Cardinals made 54.2 percent (13-for-24) in the second half -- led by senior guard Russ Smith, who poured in 21 of his game-high 28 points after intermission.

“Their guards completely dominated the game,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “The game was allowed to be played very physical. It was very fair. We just did not respond to the physical play. That’s what happens -- you turn the ball over like that.”

Smith, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., dedicated his performance to his former high school coach at Archbishop Molloy, the legendary Jack Curran, whose death at the age of 82 was announced earlier in the day.

Smith admitted shedding tears when he heard the news. “It was almost heartbreaking to think about it,” Smith said. “I just wanted to win and do anything I could to win.”

Pitino, whose team was already second in the country in steals per game, loved the forced turnover total. But he loved another stat even more: 58 defensive deflections, according to Louisville’s calculations. That’s the most a Pitino-coached team has ever collected in a single game, even during his stints in the NBA.

“It was an incredible thing to witness,” Pitino said.

Last March, Louisville arrived in New York in a slump, losing four of six to end the regular season. But they ended up winning this tournament as the No. 7 seed, and going all the way to the Final Four.

This year, the Cardinals got a head-start. They’ve now won eight games in a row, a streak that began in mid-February.

Villanova had probably already done enough to sneak into the NCAA tournament field as an at-large. But Louisville is shooting for a No. 1 seed.

“This team could win a national championship,” Wright said, of Louisville.

So if New Yorkers are looking for a team to root for in the Big Dance next week -- besides Cinderellas Iona and LIU Brooklyn -- Louisville is a prime candidate.

After all, Pitino is a New York City native and one-time coach of the Knicks. And Smith, a first-team All-Big East performer, is certainly doing his hometown proud.

But as for the rest of the country? Beware.

The Cardinals are picking up some serious steam. You don't want to see them on your side of the bracket.

 
NEW YORK - A quick look at Louisville's 74-55 victory Thursday over Villanova in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden:

What it means: Louisville is heating up at the right time, and moving closer to securing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Villanova exits in the quarterfinals, but should hear its name called on Selection Sunday nonetheless.

The No. 4-ranked Cardinals (27-5) have now won eight games in a row; the defending Big East tournament champs advance to the semifinals.

The Wildcats (20-13) still had a productive trip to New York, picking up their 20th victory of the season against St. John's in the second round. And Villanova's three wins against top-five opponents this season -- Georgetown, Syracuse and Louisville -- should put the Cats over the hump with the selection committee.

The turning point: Villanova took an early 4-0 lead, but Louisville answered with a 15-2 run to take control of the game. The Wildcats closed the gap to 22-19 with 3:35 remaining in the half, on a Tony Chennault jumper. The Cardinals responded with eight consecutive points, including 3-pointers by Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, to take their largest lead to that point, 30-19. Louisville was up 30-21 at intermission.

The margin was still nine (36-27) when Louisville went on a 10-1 spurt to go up 46-28 with 12:36 to play. Smith scored eight of those 10 points, including two more 3-pointers. Yet another Smith triple pushed the lead to 20, 51-31, two minutes later, and the rout was on.

Star watch: Smith, the second-leading scorer in the Big East this season (17.9 points per game), scored a game-high 28 -- 21 in the second half. Smith shot 7-for-12 from the field, 4-for-6 from beyond the arc and 10-for-11 from the foul line. Luke Hancock chipped in 12 points off the bench, and Siva added 10.

JayVaughn Pinkston scored 21 points to lead Villanova. Mouphtaou Yarou had 13 points and 11 rebounds.

Number crunch: Villanova committed 25 turnovers -- with 18 coming in the first half. Not a huge surprise, though, when you consider that the Cardinals were second in the nation in steals per game (10.7) and the Wildcats were 318th in Division I (out of 347) in turnovers per game (15.4).

Also, Louisville shot 10-for-24 from downtown in the game (41.7 percent). Villanova was just 2-for-12 (16.7 percent).

What's next: Louisville, the No. 2 seed, will play No. 6 Notre Dame on Friday night at approximately 9:30 p.m.

Villanova heads home and starts prepping for the Big Dance.

Pitt sent packing for Tobacco Road

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NEW YORK -- There isn’t much time to reflect and contemplate the deep meaning of anything when you're a basketball coach.

There is always another opponent to beat, another recruit to woo.

And so as Jamie Dixon walked onto the Madison Square Garden floor for the last time as a member of the Big East Conference, he wasn’t teary-eyed or filled with nostalgia. He was worried about Syracuse.

And when it was over, when the Orange claimed the 62-59 victory to officially send the Panthers packing for the ACC, Dixon didn’t pause or take in the sights. He didn’t gaze into the darkness of the stands or even turn around. He walked over, shook Jim Boeheim's hand and kept going on to the next thing: the NCAA tournament.

"You don’t really have time to sit back, especially during it," Dixon said. "Maybe at some point afterwards."

At least as Pitt leaves Broadway for Tobacco Road, it can take comfort in the fact that it went out on its own terms: a typical bare-knuckle Big East brawl.

[+] EnlargeDante Taylor
Tony Spinelli/ESPNPitt's last game in the Big East tournament was another physical brawl.
Brandon Triche and James Southerland both walked into the postgame interview room with ice bags on each knee; Dante Taylor got popped in the eye so badly during the game he was almost gushing blood onto his uniform; and there was one play where three guys lay sprawled underneath the hoop while Tray Woodall checked his eye for blood and Taylor held his knee.

At which point you had to wonder if ACC officials were watching in Greensboro, N.C., and wondering, "What have we gotten ourselves into?"

"I think that’s why this has been the best league and games like this typify that," Dixon said. "I’m really proud of how our guys kept battling. That shows something, too. In our league, teams get down and keep battling. That’s been pretty consistent throughout the league."

To that point, the Panthers came back from a 13-point halftime deficit and a 10-point second-half hole, with the ball and a chance to tie it with 28 seconds left.

Instead Michael Carter-Williams stepped in front of a pass from James Robinson, drove down the court and wisely held on to the ball, forcing the Panthers to foul him. The sophomore recently tabbed the most improved player in the conference showed the progression he has made this season.

The same guy who went 7-for-15 in this building against Temple in December drained the free throws, knocking down four in the final minute, to seal the victory.

"He’s worked hard at it," Boeheim said. "Sometimes you have to go through those bad experiences to be able to come back in this situation and be able to make them. And they were huge. I mean, I don’t think we win if he doesn’t go to the line and hit those free throws."

Pitt’s exodus doesn’t conjure up the same sort of sentiment that Syracuse’s will, whenever that comes. Still the Panthers have more than made their mark on the Big East.

Pitt advanced to the tournament title game in seven of the past 12 years and won the whole thing in both 2003 and 2008.

Dixon culled plenty of talent from New York, giving his team both local flavor and fan appreciation.

Mix in the Panthers’ style under him and his predecessor Ben Howland -- gritty, scrappy, occasionally ugly offensively and never apologetic -- and Pitt fit right in with the image of a league that once got so physical it went to six fouls.

"It’s sad we had to go out this way," Lamar Patterson said. "But I had fun playing in the Big East."

Fun, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and for Pittsburgh Big East fun was always a basketball game that looked like a street fight.
NEW YORK -- A quick look at Syracuse's 62-59 win over Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament.

What it means: Syracuse is headed to the Big East semifinals, and one more tussle with archrival Georgetown. Pittsburgh, a member of the Big East since 1982, has played its final game as a member of the conference.

The No. 19-ranked Orange (25-8, 11-7) arrived in New York in a slump, losing four of five to end the regular season. But they've now won back-to-back games at Madison Square Garden, defeating Seton Hall by 12 on Wednesday, and then holding off Pittsburgh on Thursday.

The No. 17-ranked Panthers (24-8, 12-6) closed the regular season with four wins in a row, but exit this tournament after just one game.

The turning point: The game was tied at 14 midway through the first half, before Syracuse went on a pair of runs. The Orange scored 10 straight points -- with two 3-pointers by James Southerland, and two buckets by Brandon Triche -- to go ahead by a dozen at 27-15. Pittsburgh closed to within five, 32-27, on a pair of James Robinson free throws. But then Syracuse scored eight straight to end the half, capped off by a C.J. Fair 3-pointer at the buzzer (courtesy of a very friendly bounce). The Orange led 40-27 at intermission.

Pittsburgh closed to within four, 47-43, on a Tray Woodall 3-pointer with 8:39 remaining. But on Syracuse's very next possession, Michael Carter-Williams -- a 27.9 percent shooter from beyond the arc -- answered with a 3 of his own, making it 50-43. But Pitt wasn't finished. In fact, the Panthers had a chance to tie the game -- Talib Zanna scored a putback to make it 58-57 with 31 seconds left, and was fouled on the play. But Zanna missed the free throw, Carter-Williams got the rebound, and was fouled.

Carter-Williams sank both ends of the 1-and-1, but Pittsburgh, trailing 60-57, still had one more chance to tie the game. Then Carter-Williams stole a pass from Robinson, was fouled, sank both ends of another 1-and-1, and the Orange emerged victorious.

Star watch: Southerland is the early front-runner for tournament MVP. The 6-foot-8 senior swingman, a New York City native, scored a team-high 20 points, shooting 7-for-10 from the field and a perfect 6-for-6 from downtown. Southerland also scored 20, shooting 6-for-9 from deep, in the Orange's win over Seton Hall on Wednesday.

C.J. Fair had 13 points and seven rebounds for Syracuse, and Triche added 12 points. Carter-Williams had 11 points, seven assists and six rebounds, and made the key plays down the stretch.

Pittsburgh had four players in double figures, led by Lamar Patterson (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Woodall (12 points). Zanna and Robinson scored 10 points apiece.

Number crunch: Syracuse shot an astounding 12-for-19 from 3-point range (63.2 percent). Pittsburgh made half as many -- 6-for-19 (31.6 percent).

The Panthers dominated the Orange on the offensive glass 20-8. But they made just 11 of 19 free throws (57.9 percent).

What's next: Syracuse, the No. 5 seed, will play No. 1 seed Georgetown, Friday at 7 p.m. ET. The Hoyas won both regular-season meetings between the teams, including a 61-39 pasting of the Orange last Saturday in D.C.

Pittsburgh returns home to prepare for the NCAA tournament. Prior to Thursday's loss, the Panthers were projected as a No. 5 seed in the latest edition of ESPN.com's Bracketology (as was Syracuse).
NEW YORK -- After his team was all but decimated by Georgetown in the regular-season finale, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim lamented that he didn’t care how much Otto Porter Jr. scored against the Orange, he wanted them to shut down the Hoyas’ backcourt.

It seemed like a counterintuitive argument, what with the 33 points Porter scored against Syracuse in the first meeting, but the Hall of Fame coach proved to have Hall of Fame logic. Markel Starks, Jabril Trawick and sixth man D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera combined for 45 of the Hoyas’ 61 points in that rout.

[+] EnlargeD'Vauntes Smith-Rivera
Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera hit a tiebreaking 3-pointer that helped Georgetown close out the game.
Mick Cronin now knows exactly what Boeheim was talking about. In the Hoyas’ 62-43 Big East Tournament quarterfinal win over Cincinnati, Porter scored a team-high 18 for Georgetown, but he wasn’t the Bearcats’ problem.

It was the unheralded trio, the ones who will kill you while you’re paying too much attention to Porter. It was Trawick (9 points), Starks (14) and Smith-Rivera (13) who beat the Bearcats.

“It’s key," Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. “Otto has gotten a lot of attention lately and deservedly so. He’s one of the best -- the best player in the nation in my opinion -- but we have a very good team. I’ve said that over and over again."

Thompson went on to remark about his team’s unselfishness, a bonus of an attribute that happens to work especially well because the player of the year candidate embodies it.

Because that’s the thing about Georgetown -- even when it’s not about Porter, it’s about Porter.

He has terrific players around him, players who can be every bit as lethal collectively (as they were to Cincinnati) as Porter can be individually, but part of why they are so effective is because he’s so darned good.

Defenses are going to pay more attention when someone drops 33 on Syracuse and works his way onto the short list for national player of the year.

“The more attention he’s gotten, the more a team’s strategy is to stop him," Smith-Rivera said.

And the real good fortune for Thompson is that Porter is not only smart enough to recognize that, he’s unselfish enough to not care.

He’s more than happy to let defenses collapse around him and find an open man. He's perfectly content if someone else feels like scoring.

“Hey, we’re all in the scouting report, too," Starks said. “Otto is getting well-deserved attention but we know with that attention it’s up to us to step up. We don’t say, ‘Hey it’s just up to Otto.’ We know we have to play as a unit and a team."
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NEW YORK -- What it means: Georgetown moves on to the Big East semifinals, and remains in play for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Cincinnati is currently projected to receive an at-large berth, but it's no lock.

The Bearcats rallied after falling behind big in the first half (see below), but the Hoyas ultimately cruised to victory in the first of four quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, winning 62-43.

Georgetown (25-5, 14-4), ranked No. 5 in the country, has now won 13 of its past 14 games. Cincinnati (22-11, 9-9) is listed as a No. 11 seed in the latest edition of ESPN.com's Bracketology, but will have to sweat it out until Selection Sunday.

The turning point: Georgetown jumped out to a 16-point lead, 24-8, with 5:37 remaining in the first half, after back-to-back 3-pointers by Big East Player of the Year Otto Porter Jr. and freshman D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera. Cincinnati went more than seven minutes without scoring a single point. But then the Bearcats got hot from deep, making four treys in the closing minutes -- three by Cashmere Wright -- to draw within five, 29-24, at intermission.

Cincinnati opened the second half on a 9-2 run, taking a two-point lead, 33-31, on another Wright jumper with 16:22 to play. But then Georgetown scored seven points in a row to re-take control of the game -- five by Smith-Rivera. The Bearcats never got closer than five points again. A putback, again by Smith-Rivera, pushed the lead to 12, 51-39, with 5:14 left. The Hoyas put them away from there.

Star watch: It was a true team effort by Georgetown. The Hoyas had three players in double figures -- Porter (18 points, 11-for-11 from foul line), Markel Starks (14) and Smith-Rivera (13). Jabril Trawick chipped in nine points.

Wright led Cincinnati with 14 points, and JaQuon Parker added 12. Sean Kilpatrick -- the fourth-leading scorer in the Big East this season (17.3 ppg) -- scored just four points, shooting 2-for-12 from the field and 0-for-8 from beyond the arc. It was a day to forget for the Yonkers, N.Y., native, playing very close to home.

Number crunch: The shooting percentages of the two teams were strikingly similar, until the final few minutes, when Cincinnati was hoisting up quick shots and Georgetown was cleaning up at the foul line. The difference? Georgetown had 10 more attempts from the field, thanks to an 11-7 advantage on the offensive glass, and 15 turnovers by the Bearcats. The Hoyas gave the ball away just nine times.

What's next: Georgetown, the No. 1 seed, will play the winner of No. 4 Pittsburgh versus No. 5 Syracuse, on Friday at 7 p.m. ET.

Cincinnati returns home to await its postseason fate.
A once-promising St. John’s season may be over, five days before Selection Sunday.

The Red Storm were eliminated from the Big East tournament on the first full day of action Wednesday, losing their opening game to Villanova, 66-53.

St. John’s was in the NCAA tournament mix as late as the final week of February, but the Red Storm (16-15, 8-10) have lost five games in a row.

"Our goal is always to win the Big East championship and then win the tournament championship," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said. "But you look back, and there's a reason we were picked 12th in the league."

St. John's was actually picked to finish 10th in the conference's preseason poll. But the Red Storm, despite their youth, were tied for third in the conference at 6-3, after finishing off January with five straight wins.

[+] EnlargeSt. John's Steve Lavin
Debby Wong/USA TODAY SportsSt. John's has lost its first Big East tournament game two years in a row, but coach Steve Lavin remains "bold on the future."
The schedule got tougher after that, but the Red Storm were still on the NCAA bubble after beating South Florida on Feb. 20. Things unraveled from there.

The losing streak began with a 63-47 defeat against Pittsburgh, here at the Garden on Feb. 24. But the real turning point came five days later, when Lavin announced he was suspending leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison (17.8 ppg) for the rest of the season for conduct detrimental to the team.

St. John's was already offensively challenged -- one of the worst teams in Division I in 3-point field goals per game, and free throw percentage. Losing Harrison, the fourth-leading scorer in the entire conference, was a crippling blow.

The game against Villanova on Wednesday was typical of the team's play without Harrison. The Red Storm played hard, and were a pain in the neck on the defensive end. But they just didn't have enough firepower on the other end, shooting 35.6 percent from the field (21-for-59) and 2-for-11 from beyond the arc (18.2 percent).

Freshman forward Jakarr Sampson, the only other player on the team averaging in double figures, scored 13 points, but shot just 5-for-18. Sampson didn't get the same looks without Harrison drawing defenders' attention.

"I felt like I had a lot of heat on me," Sampson said.

"They're not as explosive with him [not] on the floor," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "That's a big loss."

St. John's hung tough for a while -- the game was tied at the half, and the Red Storm were still within five with less than seven minutes remaining -- but down the stretch, they just couldn't keep up.

Villanova, which leads Division I in free throw attempts and makes per game, shot 19-for-23 from the foul line. St. John's was just 9-for-14.

"I think the physicality allowed them to get into the bonus and to get to the foul line and convert from there," Lavin said.

The NCAA tournament is clearly out of the question now. Next question: Will St. John's even garner an invitation to the NIT?

After the Red Storm's overtime loss to Marquette last weekend to end the regular season, Lavin said he'd be surprised if they don't get an NIT bid. But a team on a five-game losing streak, and without its top player available, isn't very attractive.

St. John's could also receive an invitation to the lesser-known CBI or CIT. But those tournaments get even less respect than the NIT.

In the bigger picture, St. John's has now been eliminated in its first game of the Big East tournament for the second year in a row. Lavin was hired to return St. John's to prominence and make the Red Storm a perennial NCAA tournament participant. But after a surprising at-large bid in his first season, St. John's has missed the Big Dance the past two years.

Nevertheless, Lavin continues to express confidence in the program.

"I'm bold on the future," Lavin said, "and the fact the whole team is coming back, the group of people, the character, the work ethic, their talent, and we're moving in the right direction."

But Sampson could bolt for the NBA -- he didn't commit to coming back next season after receiving the Big East Rookie of the Year award earlier this week, saying he wanted to weigh his options. Harrison could return -- or he could opt to turn pro as well, or transfer to another school.

In truth, the future of St. John's basketball is very much up in the air, five days before Selection Sunday.

Only one thing's for sure -- the Red Storm won't be dancing this year.

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