LOUISVILLE — Louisville's 54-year run of basketball in Freedom Hall came to an end on Saturday afternoon.
And nobody in the record crowd of 20,135 — not the all-time great players, not legendary coach Denny Crum, not Rick Pitino or the current Cardinal players — could have dreamed up a better scenario to say goodbye to the old barn.
Everything came up roses. The Cards smothered Syracuse, the nation's No. 1 team, with a dominating second-half run to post a convincing 78-68 win. They also took themselves firmly off the bubble and solidified an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. And they got one of the most memorable individual Freedom Hall performances in history from little-used sophomore Kyle Kuric.
Kuric, a 6-foot-4 sophomore averaging 3.5 points and 13.4 minutes a game, played three scoreless minutes in the first half. But he went nuts in the final 20 minutes, scoring 22 points in a dizzying array of dunks and three-pointers. Kuric hit his first six shots from the floor as the Cards quickly erased a 35-30 halftime deficit and took control of the game.
"He put on a great performance that he'll remember for the rest of his life," Pitino said.
"It was like a fairy-tale ending," senior guard Edgar Sosa said. "It was a game we needed, all the former greats were here, and we beat the No. 1 team in the nation by double figures."
Kuric was money on the three from the left corner, hitting 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, and he consistently beat the Orange men down the court and threw down four dunks.
His back-to-back threes extended U of L's lead to 63-54 with 7:46 remaining, and he had three slams in the final four minutes. The first gave the Cards its first double digit lead (71-61), the second came in transition and made it 75-61, and he added an exclamation point throwdown with 44 seconds left.
Kuric might not have even been in the game for extended minutes had the Cards not lost starting guard Jerry Smith (thumb injury) and starting forward Reginald Delk (cramps).
"It's the kind of game every kid dreams of," Kuric said. "I got my opportunity and just tried to make the most of it."
The Orange, who clinched the Big East regular season crown earlier this week and will still likely be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, have lost just three games this season and two of them have come at the hands of the Cards.
"Sometimes in this league it just comes down to matchups," Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said. "Louisville's a zone team, they practice against it everyday, and they're the best team in the league against our zone."
The Cards got open looks in the first half against the Syracuse zone but were just 6-of-24 from three-point territory. They finished the game 12-of-40 on threes.
"I told them at halftime to keep shooting," Pitino said. "If we had those open shots we were going to take them."
Boeheim said he wasn't caught off guard by Kuric's outburst.
"We knew he was a good player; he just doesn't play that much," Boeheim said. "It's hard to make shots when you're on the bench. They missed so many shots in the first half that we thought they'd miss them all and we got a little lax defensively."
And shooting 51.4 percent in the first half, Syracuse cooled off considerably in the final 20 minutes, hitting on just 12-of-33 (36.4 percent). Andy Rautins, its best perimeter shooter, went just 1-of-8 on threes. And after out-rebounding Louisville 22-15 in the first half, the Orange were beat 27-14 on the boards in the second.
"That's what we do well; rebound the ball," Boeheim said. "I thought Louisville just went after it harder and did a better job on the boards than we did."
Kuric wasn't the only hero. Samardo Samuels finished with 12 points and nine rebounds after a scoreless first half, and Edgar Sosa scored nine points and tied a career-high with 10 assists.
But it was Kuric who was mobbed by the fans, media and former Cardinal stars after the game. When he asked if guys like Darrell Griffith, Rodney McCray and Billy Thompson even knew who he was, Kuric replied, "They do now."