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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Before heading back to Syracuse on Saturday, point guard Michael Carter-Williams spent 15 minutes signing autographs at Louisville's KFC Yum! Center.
In a nearby tunnel, coach Jim Boeheim posed for pictures as his players trickled out of the locker room, sweat beads still dotting their foreheads.
Not just from their 70-68 victory over No. 1 Louisville, but from the celebration that took place afterward.
It was an unlikely scene, to be sure. Syracuse -- playing without its second-leading scorer -- becoming the first team since 2009 to knock off the nation's top-ranked squad on its home court. One week after nearly losing to Big East bottom-feeder Providence, the Orange entered Saturday's game as a 7.5-point underdog, and some thought the spread could have been higher.
"Everyone talking about the game said we had no chance," said Boeheim, pausing and offering the slightest smirk.
|Michael Carter-Williams' big second half was key for Syracuse knocking off Louisville, the nation's top-ranked team.|
"You always have a chance."
Especially with players such as Carter-Williams on your roster. After a first half in which he tied his career high with six turnovers -- "I couldn't have been any worse," he said -- Carter-Williams turned in what may have been the most clutch performance of the college basketball season to date.
A sophomore, Carter-Williams came up with two steals and snared a mammoth defensive rebound -- all in the final 29 seconds -- to catapult sixth-ranked Syracuse to victory.
With the Orange trailing 68-67, Carter-Williams stepped in front of a pass from Louisville's Peyton Siva and raced down the court for a powerful two-handed dunk -- in the face of Cardinals center Gorgui Dieng, no less -- that gave his team a 69-68 lead with 25 ticks remaining.
"I saw Dieng coming, and I was hoping it'd be a foul," Boeheim said. "I didn't know if Mike had enough left in him to dunk. That was the only way he was going to score the basket."
Wayne Blackshear missed a layup on Louisville's next possession, and the 6-foot-6, 185-pound Carter-Williams thrust himself into the scrum and emerged with the defensive rebound. He was fouled and made one of two free throws to make it 70-68 with 13 seconds left.
For Carter-Williams, the cherry on top came moments later when he snatched the ball away from Dieng in the paint for a clean steal, heaving the ball upcourt to a teammate as time expired.
MCW accounted for Syracuse's final 13 points, scoring 11 of them and assisting on the other two.
Carter-Williams entered the game ranked first in the nation in assists (9.4) and fourth in steals (3.2). He finished with 16 points, 7 assists, 4 steals and 8 turnovers Saturday.
"In the first half, I didn't play well," Carter-Williams said. "I just kept saying in my mind, 'The first half is over with. I'm going to come out and play my heart out in the second half.'
"I work too hard to let something affect me that's already happened."
Syracuse has adapted that same mantra. The school announced Jan. 12 that forward James Southerland, the team's top outside shooter, had been suspended indefinitely while the NCAA investigates the program's academic records. Southerland averages 13.6 points a game.
While some pundits were quick to write off the Orange's chances for a Big East title, Syracuse didn't flinch. In some ways, Boeheim's squad got better.
Jerami Grant had 10 points and five rebounds -- including three big ones on the offensive end -- in 35 minutes off the bench. Baye Moussa Keita also showed some grit in reserve duty with four points and five boards in 19 minutes.
|Jim Boeheim's team is certainly hanging in there despite some obstacles.|
"We have guys who are willing to step up, guys who are hungry," Brandon Triche said. "We've got guys who can start for just about any team that haven't been starting for us. Young guys are going to get better.
"It's a team effort. You lose one guy and another guy is going to step up."
Triche was that player for Syracuse in the first half Saturday, as he scored 18 of his 23 points before intermission. Carter-Williams, though, emerged as the hero with his late-game heroics.
Carter-Williams said he got an extra jolt of energy after Louisville's Russ Smith stole the ball from him for an easy dunk with 7:37 left. The basket gave the Cards a 62-57 edge, but Syracuse outscored Louisville 13-6 the rest of the way behind MCW.
"When he took the ball from me, I knew I had to make big plays down the stretch," Carter-Williams said. "I'd have been losing sleep and mad at myself a long time. I knew I had to step up in the end.
"No matter what goes wrong, just turn the page. That's what you have to do in this game or it's going to eat you alive."
Along with changing the course of the Big East race -- Syracuse is the lone undefeated team at 5-0 -- Carter-Williams' resiliency could alter the national landscape. No. 1 Louisville and No. 2 Indiana lost this week, and No. 4 Kansas was nearly upset by lowly Texas on Saturday in Austin.
The only other teams ahead of Syracuse are third-ranked Duke and No. 5 Michigan. Duke beat Louisville in November, but the Cardinals played that game without Dieng, making Syracuse's win more impressive. Michigan is off this weekend.
Could Syracuse be No. 1 in the next Associated Press poll?
The Orange didn't seem to care Saturday. Heck, Boeheim was still touting Louisville as the country's best team.
"They will be there at the end of the year and the team to beat," he said.
Boeheim is being kind.
As easy is it is to picture Louisville cutting down the nets in Atlanta this April, Syracuse deserves to be in the conversation as long as it continues to perform like it did Saturday, when the KFC Yum! Center went from deafening to dead in a matter of seconds.
"It was a great game," Boeheim said, "but now we can forget about it and try to get ready for the Cincinnati game Monday night."
Forget about it?
That may be easy for some players.
But not for Carter-Williams.
"I'll remember this," he said, "for a long time."