Montrezl Harrell

Montrezl Harrell shines, No. 4 Louisville wins Big East championship

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NEW YORK, N.Y.– For a time it was almost too difficult to comprehend how a team that looked so out of sync in the first half of a conference title game could pull off something so remarkable in the final 20 minutes of a game with such implications and such story lines, at such a venue on such a night.

After trailing by 13 points at halftime, No. 4 Louisville came out of the gate in the second half on a 5-0 run that forced a Jim Boeheim timeout, part of a larger 27-3 run that stunned, shocked, and disoriented No. 19 Syracuse in a 78-61 Cardinal win Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.

“I had to jump our guys pretty hard at halftime because…our defense wasn’t great because our offense was quick-shooting and we’re not a quick-shooting team,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “But to go out in the second half and score 56 points off good offense, then our defense came because of the good offense.”

Freshman Montrezl Harrell had his best game of the season in the biggest game of his young collegiate career with 20 points, seven rebounds, and an immeasurable amount of energy on both ends of the floor that fueled Louisville’s monster comeback.

Harrell provides a different kind of player on the interior for Louisville when compared to Chane Behanan, bringing more explosiveness getting to the basket and more length, according to Pitino.

“You never know in college basketball who is going to step up,” Pitino said. “Now, tonight [Harrell] takes over the backboard, takes over the game…that’s the beauty of college basketball.”

“I came in the game just ready and being prepared for whatever coach needed me to do,” said Harrell. “These guys looked for me and I just tried to finish for them.”

But for as many variables as there were that went into the making of the 2013 Big East tournament final between Syracuse and Louisville, the first half itself was rather simple. It had nothing to do with the complex monetary motives that push realignment or the politics of recruiting blue-chip prospects. Syracuse simply made shots at a 45 percent clip and Louisville at 26 percent.

But Louisville coach Rick Pitino dialed up the defensive pressure to begin the second half in a move that caught Syracuse off guard and allowed the Cardinals to make up ground when shots were not falling: by winning the turnover category. Louisville ended up +9 in turnover margin and outscored Syracuse 56-26 in the second half.

The ability to force turnovers, combined with a much more apparent effort to work for good shots on the offensive end made the difference. Center Gorgui Dieng hovered in the middle of the Syracuse zone at the top of the key and dished to open teammates when the defense collapsed, finishing with eight assists and just one turnover.

Louisville guard Peyton Siva won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award for the second straight time. He becomes only the second player in Big East history to win the award twice, joining former Georgetown great Patrick Ewing, who won the award in 1984 and 1985. Siva had 11 points, eight assists, and just two turnovers in the win.

“In all honesty, I didn’t think I was going to be the MVP. I wasn’t really focused on it,” Siva said. “Syracuse has been my Kryptonite for these last couple years…Coach had the confidence to leave me in the game this time and I didn’t want to let him down.”

After the game, Pitino told the media that Villanova coach Jay Wright had texted him earlier in the day, telling him that “it was only fitting” that the final Big East game as we know it would feature Pitino vs. Boeheim. Amidst the elation of winning a conference title, Pitino thought about it in a way, too.

“In the final minute of play, the first thing i thought of was what an incredible group of guys I’m coaching,” Pitino said. “Then immediately I thought of [Big East founder] Dave Gavitt and what he formed and all of us in some way or another flourished because of Dave Gavitt.”

Boeheim was less poetic and sentimental about the end for the Big East, saying he had been thinking about the end of the conference as it currently is for two years. But there was something special in Madison Square Garden Saturday night. Something about a historic comeback to win a conference championship helped to push aside the fact that this league would be changed from here forward.

If just for one night it was that way, I doubt Pitino, Boeheim, and the rest would have wanted it any other way.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

BUBBLE BANTER: Key Atlantic 10, Big East bubble games

Kelan Martin, Kyle Alexander
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This post will be updated throughout the night.

Butler (KenPom: 41, RPI; 67) at Seton Hall (KenPom: 31, RPI: 37), 6:30 p.m.
LSU (KenPom: 53, RPI: 76) at South Carolina (KenPom: 45, RPI: 28), 7:00 p.m.
Nebraska at Wisconsin (KenPom: 51, RPI: 62), 7:00 p.m.
Saint Joseph’s (KenPom: 48, RPI: 30) at George Washington (KenPom: 71, RPI: 34), 7:00 p.m.
Missouri at Vanderbilt (KenPom: 35, RPI: 58), 9:00 p.m.
No. 14 Iowa State at Texas Tech (KenPom: 59, RPI: 51), 9:00 p.m.
Michigan (KenPom: 46, RPI: 56) at Minnesota, 9:00 p.m.
Washington (KenPom: 80, RPI: 57) at Utah (KenPom: 44, RPI: 16), 9:00 p.m.
San Diego State (KenPom: 65, RPI: 47) at Fresno State, 11:00 p.m.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Ben Simmons, LSU get tested at South Carolina; more important bubble matchups

FILE - In this Nov. 24, 2015, file photo, LSU forward Ben Simmons (25) drives downcourt as teammate Antonio Blakeney (2) follows in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina State in New York. For all of his gaudy numbers, Simmons is still trying to figure out the best way to put the Tigers in position to win. And now the schedule gets harder, starting with Tuesday night's, Dec. 29, 2015, tilt against Wake Forest, followed by the opening of Southeastern Conference play against Vanderbilt and No. 10 Kentucky. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: LSU at South Carolina, 7:00 p.m.

LSU attempts to stay atop the SEC standings when they travel on the road to face South Carolina. The Gamecocks have been very tough at home this season and they’re trying to form a potential four-way tie in the conference standings if they’re able to win this one (and Texas A&M wins tonight). It will be intriguing to see how Ben Simmons fares against South Carolina’s stingy defense.

THIS ONE’S GOOD, TOO: Saint Joseph’s at George Washington, 7:00 p.m.

An important game in the Atlantic 10 as Saint Joseph’s heads to the Smith Center to play surging George Washington. The Colonels have won three straight games as they try to stay with VCU and Dayton and make a move to tie the Hawks in the league standings. CBT’s Rob Dauster will be in the building for this one, so make sure to follow him on Twitter for updates.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR

  1. No. 21 Baylor will have a tough one in the Big 12 when they go on the road at Kansas State. The Wildcats just knocked off Oklahoma and the Octagon of Doom is a very tough place to play, even if Kansas State is struggling in the standings.
  2. No. 16 SMU will try to stay in the lead in the American as they host Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane could really use a road win like this for its postseason chances.
  3. An intriguing Pac-12 contest tips as Washington heads to Utah. The Pac-12 standings are a mess right now, but these two teams still have a chance to make one final move for the regular season title if they start building momentum now.
  4. In the SEC, Alabama hosts No. 15 Texas A&M, a team that has lost three of its last four games. The Aggies will be favored in this road contest, but this one could be interesting because of Avery Johnson’s unique connection to Texas A&M. Avery Johnson Jr., a transfer guard sitting out this season at Alabama, played for the Aggies last season, so he could have some useful tips for his dad on slowing down Texas A&M’s potent offense.
  5. No. 20 Providence will be looking for revenge when they head to Milwaukee to face Marquette. The Golden Eagles currently sit eighth in the Big East standings, but they did win on the road by a point over the Friars earlier this season.