Into the Cardinals’ nest: Cuse Country invades Louisville

The biggest SU fan I know moved to Louisville in October, and soon after he was settled in we made plans to attend this game. I got on a plane in Baltimore at noon and was in downtown Louisville by 2. A quick meal and a margarita at the Mexican restaurant across the street and we were ready to head into the KFC Yum! Center: a beautiful arena with a ridiculous name.

Pregame

On our way in we were greeted by this guy, standing on a lamppost leading a C-A-R-D-S chant with the folks thronging to the doors.

(On a side note, the C-A-R-D-S chant is slightly awkward, rhythmically I mean. That fifth letter prevents it from having a comfortable meter to it like its four-letter progenitor “J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets”.)

As we entered and got our bearings there were a few little patches of orange among the sea of red. And while the Dome may have Taco Time, the Yum! Center has this:

Yes, an anthropomorphic taco in a diaper. This is the price you pay when your arena is sponsored by a family of fast food chains.

The Yum! Center is actually a really nice place. We were a bit early so we took a lap around the concourse to check it out. They have a wide variety of food stands and concessions near the front entry, but when you get halfway around is where it’s at its best. There is a combination food court/bar area, with a lot of food options, full liquor service available, and plenty of tables and chairs set up in a space with a giant glass wall that overlooks the river.

Among the food options is Papa John’s Pizza, which is not surprising because it’s Louisville, but it is surprising because Pizza Hut is one of the Yum! restaurant chains. And indeed there is a Pizza Hut concession but it doesn’t sell pizza. Just wings and pasta. It’s labeled “Pizza Hut Favorites” or something like that.


We got to our seats about 20 minutes before tip-off and were pleased to find ourselves among other Syracuse fans. Not a ton of them, but there was an Orange couple in front of us, a small group of guys behind us, and a few to our right, including a guy in a Todd Burgan jersey. There were other patches of orange visible around the stands, but this was probably the least orange crowd I’ve been in for an SU game. I’ve been to road games against St. John’s, Seton Hall, Rutgers, Villanova, and Georgetown, and all of them had sizable SU turnout, even the game in 2011 where Georgetown never made seats available to the general public (and then failed to fill the place up). Here’s the view from our seats as we sat down. You can see a small chunk of Orange faithful behind the Syracuse bench, and a couple of other individuals scattered around. You can also see on the left the inflated milk jug mini-blimp that flew aimlessly around the place before tip-off.

During the game, I was so wrapped up in the on-court events that I neglected my chronicling duties and didn’t get a single shot of the full crowd. But you saw the game; you understand.


The game itself

What a roller-coaster of a game. Up early, then down, then claw back to tie at halftime. Those first few minutes were crucial. The hot start showed SU that they could in fact score on Louisville, and also immediately took the crowd’s enthusiasm down several levels. Even when the Cardinals came back (as they were certain to do) there was still a little less buzz in the building for the rest of the half than there probably would have been otherwise. In fact, until the final few minutes, the loudest cheering of the day came during a 2nd half TV timeout when the Sugar Bowl trophy was brought out by a few members of the football team, and one of them gave a quick speech thanking the fans.

The way the second half started, with UL jumping out to a quick 8-point lead, followed by Triche finally missing a shot (a three that he forced) had us suddenly slumped in our seats, facing the prospect of a dismal second half after the hard-fought first one. But out of the under-16 timeout came one of the ‘turning point’ plays that has been overlooked because of how the game ended: Baye Keita’s unlikely post move to get around Gorgui Dieng and lay the ball in, and draw Dieng’s third foul. Even though Keita missed the free throw, it gave SU a spark and increased their resilience. Also, Dieng went to the bench in favor of a large slow white guy — and SU proceeded to score their next ten points either in the paint or at the foul line after driving into the paint. This was the 12-4 run (including Keita’s layup) that tied the game at 52 with 10 minutes left, and also caused Pitino to use a timeout — which would become important later on.

After this point, the margin never got above 5 for either team. That happened when Russ Smith picked Michael Carter-Williams’s pocket for a breakaway dunk with 7:30 remaining. As rough a play as that was to stomach, please note that, from that point on, Syracuse did not have a single turnover. For the last 7+ minutes of the game, they took perfect care of the ball. Let me also say right now that Russ Smith gets away with a ton of contact when he’s pressuring the ball. He doesn’t slap with his hands that much but he creates a lot of body contact. On this particular play, the steal itself was clean but about two seconds earlier he’d blatantly chest-bumped MCW’s shoulder and upper arm. This is stuff that would be called against 98% of college basketball players, but Smith has a reputation as an “elite on-ball defender” so he gets away with it. (See also: Aaron Craft.)

Anyway, after that steal, MCW grew up, right before our eyes, and made the plays won the game. SU went on a slow but steady 9-0 run, and he had 7 of the points and assisted on the other two. This period also included two more Louisville timeouts — one to preserve possession upon grabbing a loose ball, and one at the end of the run when Jerami Grant scored to put SU up by 4 with 4:30 left. At this point, it was Louisville’s turn to ramp up the intensity, and they stopped SU on four consecutive possessions (helped by Triche bricking the first shot of a 1-and-1 chance) while getting literally every rebound for the next 3 1/2 minutes, other than a shot that Dieng swatted out of bounds. They scored six in a row to gain a 2-point lead and had the ball with a minute left, and the arena was going ridiculous. At this point we figured it was over. But the defense forced a jumper by Blackshear (rather than Smith) which missed, and Keita made another huge play grabbing the rebound. This led to a MCW free throw opportunity, but he only made one. Louisville, still up by 1, used their last timeout to set up a final shot.

This photo was on the front of the Louisville Courier-Journal sports page on Sunday, showing Wayne Blackshear after he got STUFFED by Jerami Grant with :15 left.

And you know what happened next. The play didn’t go as planned, Siva made the bad pass, and MCW made the most important play of the year. And since UL had used up all their timeouts, they had to try and recover and go try to score. Grant made the second-most important play of the game by stuffing Blackshear near the rim, MCW grabbed the loose ball (at right), hit another free throw, and again Louisville just had to get up the court and try to make something happen. The last minute of the game really flew by. Usually a close game gets bogged down with teams trading timeouts, but Pitino had run out, and Boeheim was in no mood to give his former assistant a chance to draw anything up or even settle his team down — which they clearly needed. The MCW steal and dunk to take the lead rattled UL for the first time all day. They were stunned, and not sure what to do about it, despite their supposed “senior backcourt leadership”. Their last few plays were disorganized and frenetic, and resulted in two turnovers and a rejected shot attempt by their fourth-best scorer. And SU’s biggest regular-season win in years.

Jubilation in our little corner of the Yum! Center. Slapping fives with strangers in orange and screaming while the rest of the crowd sat in stunned silence. It was such a good moment. We were sweaty and trembling for a few minutes. We sat for a bit to soak in the atmosphere, then decided to try to head down courtside to stretch it out a little longer.


Postgame

Unlike the Dome, there was nobody scooting us out the door. In fact, UL televises Rick Pitino’s postgame press conference on the big screens for anyone who wants to hang out and watch.

Pitino had a particularly frosty presser, clearly displeased with the day’s results and his team’s late-game execution. He even complained about the officiating, which was laughable considering how many fouls his teams don’t get called for, just because they foul repeatedly on every possession, and the refs can’t call them all. My only regret about this photo is that they’d already wiped the final score from the board by the time I was close enough to take a picture of it.

Anyway, we strolled on down to the courtside with no resistance or even funny looks from the staff. I guess it’s expected. We settled in next to the section behind the SU bench, where a large orange group was hanging out.

We thought we saw Juli in there, but after a while we realized it must be her sister, which made this a large group of Jim’s in-laws and their associates. (Juli grew up in Kentucky.) At one point Daryl Gross showed up to say hi to them, and let security know they were OK:

Also coming over to say hi to some peeps were Trevor Cooney and Rakeem Christmas (in the wool pom-pom hat):

We hung out for a while and enjoyed the sweet empty arena of victory, then made our way towards the exits to begin a celebratory evening. On the way out we ran into some people who had run into Peyton Siva in front of the team store, and still wanted to take photos with him despite his terrible game that afternoon:

Finally, we headed out into the night, no longer shaking but still thrilling to the day’s events. As we crossed the street I noticed a familiar color. As it turns out, all the fire hydrants in Louisville are colored Syracuse orange, including this one directly opposite the arena. The town may be full of Cardinal red and Kentucky blue, but it’s got orange on every street. Apparently Louisville, too, is Cuse Country.

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