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March 1, 2013

Cards' title hopes rest on beating Syracuse

For over a month now, Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino and his players have lamented a 70-68 loss to Syracuse in the KFC Yum! Center as one that got away, the Cardinals having led for much of the second half, then missing chances at the end to pull out the victory.

Making it even more of a bitter pill to swallow, the loss came just five days after UofL had been voted No. 1 in both polls.

Now the No. 10/9 Cardinals (23-5, 11-4) have a chance to atone somewhat for that setback when they take on No. 12 Syracuse (22-6, 10-5) in a nationally-televised showdown in the Carrier Dome (noon, CBS) that has championship ramifications for both teams.

UofL enters the weekend in a tie with Marquette for second-place, a game behind No. 7/8 Georgetown (22-4, 11-3) with three games remaining. A defeat by either team would probably knock the loser out of title contention.

A victory by the Cards, who have won four in a row against teams in the bottom half of the league, would not only keep them in the championship hunt, but would set them up for a full head of steam going into the Big East Tournament. UofL's last two regular-season games are both at home -- against Cincinnati 19-9, 7-8) Monday night and No. 21/20 Notre Dame (22-6, 10-5) on March 9.

"We all know how big of a win this would be," UofL guard Russ Smith says. "But we have two games to finish out after this one. We'll go to Syracuse, then see where we are from there."

If the rematch is close, Smith says the Cards must do a better job of executing than they did the last time and in two other narrow losses -- 53-51 at Georgetown and 104-101 in five overtimes at Notre Dame.

"We've just got to close out games and that's been our biggest issue with our losses, closing out the game in the last five minutes," Smith says.

UofL assistant coach Kevin Keats, filling in for Pitino Friday because the head man was on a recruiting trip to Seattle, believes the key to a Cardinal victory is playing better defense, especially against Syracuse guards Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams, who are averaging a combined 27 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Carter-Williams leads the Big East in assists with 7.9 per game.

In the first meeting, Triche led Syracuse with 23 points, hitting 9-of-13 shots -- including 5-of-7 3-pointers -- and also had six rebounds. Carter-Williams had a game-high eight turnovers, but only two in the second half, and contributed 16 points, seven assists and four rebounds.

"I thought we did a poor job getting over screens, and also Carter-Williams and Triche were able to get to the basket," Keats says. "We lost Triche a bunch in transition and he made a lot of shots on us. So we've got to sit down and gaurd and do a better job of getting over their screens. We gave up driving lanes, so we can't get too stretched out this time. We have to keep our defense tighter."

The Cards will also have to contend with a dangerous player who wasn't on the court for the 'Cuse in Louisville. Sixth man James Southerland, a 6-foot-8 senior forward, was ineligible at the time due to academic issues, but has since returned. He is averaging 13.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and is shooting 39 percent (53-136) from 3-point range.

Syracuse's hottest player at the moment is forward C.J. Fair, who went 8-for-11 from the field in the loss at Marquette Monday and his averaging 16.0 in conference games.

Since beating UofL, Syracuse has run into problems, but it's schedule has been much tougher than Louisville's during that stretch. The Orange has dropped three of five outings, including back-to-back defeats by Georgetown (57-46 at home) and No. 22 Marquette (74-71 in Milwaukee).

"This is a tough time for us," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who threw a temper-tantrum against the media after the loss to Marquette. "We didn't play well against Georgetown, then we lost a tough game at Marquette. We'll get through this and be a good team when we need to be."

NOTE--The No. 1 ranked team in the country has lost seven times this season, but only one of those losses came at home. Syracuse's win over UofL on Jan. 19 remains the only home-court loss for a top-ranked team this year. SU's victory marked the first time a No. 1 team had lost at home since Connecticut fell to Pittsburgh on Feb. 16, 2009.

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