By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Basketball Editor
FACTS & STATS: Site: Madison Square Garden (19,763) -- New York, New York. Television: ESPN. Home Record: Syracuse 17-2, Louisville 15-1. Away Record: Syracuse 6-5, Louisville 8-3. Neutral Record: Syracuse 3-1, Louisville 5-1. Conference Record: Syracuse 11-7, Louisville 14-4. Series Record: Louisville leads, 14-7.
GAME NOTES: For the final time the storied Big East Conference Tournament will hold its championship game at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, as the defending champion Louisville Cardinals take on the Syracuse Orange.
In a brutal slugfest with top-seed Georgetown on Friday, Syracuse outlasted the Hoyas in overtime, 58-55 to advance to the tournament final. This run has been a bit of a surprise for Syracuse which didn't come into the postseason with much momentum losing three of its last four games of the regular season. The Orange are in search of their sixth tournament title and first since 2006 when current assistant coach Gerry McNamara carried the ninth-seeded Orange to a stunning title run.
Louisville has saved its best basketball for the stretch run as its 69-57 win over Notre Dame in the semifinals was its 12th win in the last 13 games. Nine of those wins have come by at least 14 points for Louisville which is trying to defend its tournament title from a year ago. Rick Pitino's Cardinals own the best overall mark in the league (28-5) and are likely a lock for a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament should they close out strong.
These teams split the season series with the two games decided by a combined seven points. In terms of the all-time series, the Cardinals hold a 13-7 edge, making them one of a few teams in the conference to have an upper hand on the Orange.
Syracuse controlled most of the game with Georgetown and led by as many as 12 points in the second half. However, Georgetown closed regulation on a 14-6 run to force overtime. C.J. Fair flew through the lane for a dunk with just over two minutes to go in the extra session to give the Orange a four-point cushion which proved to be enough to hold off the Hoyas, despite a number of missed free throws from Syracuse.
Making a surprising impact in the semifinals was Baye Moussa Keita (3.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg), as the junior center saw more court time (41 minutes) than he had all season and dropped in 13 points to go with eight rebounds. Even more astonishing was his 7-of-7 effort from the free-throw line as he shoots under 50 percent from the stripe normally. James Southerland (14.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg) knocked down four more shots from beyond the arc in the contest to tie McNamara's Tournament record with 16 3-pointers total, while Michael Carter- Williams (12.3 ppg, 7.8 apg), Fair (14.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and Brandon Triche (13.9 ppg) continued to be the primary contributors.
Pressure defense has been the calling card for Louisville all season and it was yet again on Friday. Peyton Siva collected a Big East Tournament record seven steals, as the Cardinals forced 16 turnovers from the normally careful Irish.
Creating havoc for opposing teams has been the key to the squad's success this season. The Cardinals lead the Big East and are in the top five teams in the nation in steals (10.7 spg). When foes are actually able to hold onto the ball they are scoring just 57.9 points per game and shooting 38.8 percent from the field. Russ Smith (18.2 ppg) has no fear as a scorer and will take shots from anywhere on the floor as he proved on Friday, scoring a game-high 20 points. Gorgui Dieng (10.1 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 2.6 bpg) is one of the best big men in the conference with his ability to crash the boards and protect the rim. Siva (10 ppg, 5.8 apg) runs the point for the Cardinals, while Chane Behanan (10.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Wayne Blackshear (8.1 ppg) and Luke Hancock (7.4 ppg) add even more depth.
Louisville has been on an absolute tear over the last two months of the season. Syracuse is coming off an emotional overtime win over Georgetown which may leave it drained on Saturday night. That could prove fatal against the defensive pressure from the Cardinals.