NEW YORK — Syracuse left the court with a loss for only the second time this season. That the Orange came close to keeping it a one-loss season didn't matter.
"I mean, we hate losing, at the end of the day," Dion Waiters said after Cincinnati beat No. 2 Syracuse 71-68 on Friday night in the semifinals of the Big East tournament. "Our mindset coming into this tournament was just to win and continue to get better as a team. Nobody likes to lose. You know, Cincinnati came out on fire. You know, we've got to do a better job at the guard position getting up on the shooters and contesting the shots better than what we did in the first half, and I think if we do that and continue to work hard on the defensive end, I think we'll be a lot better moving forward."
The Bearcats had an impressive first half from behind the 3-point line in taking a 17-point lead. The Orange finally started connecting from long range and were within one point in the final seconds before falling short of an opportunity to play for their sixth Big East conference title.
"At the end of the day it should give us that much more (confidence) to go out there and play more, and when we go back to practice, take practice to a whole other level and just get ready for the championship, the NCAA tournament," said Waiters, who led the top-seeded Orange with 28 points. "That's the main goal and that's what we all talked about at the end of the day. I mean, winning the Big East don't mean nothing at all. We're trying to win the NCAA tournament. That's the main focus."
The fourth-seeded Bearcats (24-9) will meet the seventh-seeded Louisville in Saturday night's championship game at Madison Square Garden. The Cardinals beat third-seeded and 23rd-ranked Notre Dame 64-50.
To get there, they ended the 11-game winning streak of the top-seeded Orange (31-2).
"It's a huge win for our program," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "I think what you've got to realize in college basketball is you've got to allow teams the course of the season, some teams get better."
Yancy Gates and Sean Kilpatrick both had 18 points for Cincinnati, which rebounded from one of its worst 3-point efforts in the quarterfinals against Georgetown with one of its best against Syracuse.
"Over the course of the entire season, we lead the Big East in 3-point point field goals made. We've made more 3s than anybody in the Big East," Cronin said. "We're standing there wide open. Last night, we were 2 for 21. We shot seven that went in and out. We've got guys that can make shots, so law of averages catches up."
Syracuse closed to 69-68 with 5.4 seconds left when Waiters made two free throws — and the second one he was trying to miss. Justin Jackson was all alone when he dunked with 1 second left for a three-point lead and Waiters' desperation heave from beyond midcourt was off at the buzzer.
The loss shouldn't hurt the Orange's chances of being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but it did keep them from playing for their first Big East tournament title since 2006.
"Cincinnati moved the ball better than we did. They got some real good looks. They made eight 3s in the first half, and we didn't get anything going offensively in the first half. I was shocked that we were within 12," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "We just couldn't get anything going. We'd get close a couple times.
"And then late, Dion made a couple really difficult 3s, and we got it to two and we had an opportunity, and we just couldn't make a play there. We wanted Dion to try to miss the second one, but he's such a good shooter, he couldn't do that."
Cashmere Wright and Dion Dixon both had 11 points for the Bearcats, who came into the Big East tournament with their at-large NCAA berth still up for debate. That's no longer true with the double-overtime quarterfinal win over No. 13 Georgetown and the victory over Syracuse in their first-ever semifinal appearance.
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