Frank Franklin II, Associated Press
NEW YORK — This year's Big East championship will have a slight midwestern accent and a touch of a southern twang.
Neither first-time finalist Cincinnati nor seventh-seeded Louisville was in the league eight years ago. But they'll be front and center Saturday night when they play for the conference crown at Madison Square Garden.
"I think Conference USA has come to the Big Apple," Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said.
Cincinnati and Louisville both joined the Big East for the 2005-06 season, though their tournament experiences have hardly been the same. The Bearcats had never advanced beyond the quarterfinals before this year, yet they looked right at home in the spotlight Friday night.
Sean Kilpatrick keyed an early 3-point barrage and scored 18 points to help fourth-seeded Cincinnati hold on for a 71-68 upset of No. 2 Syracuse. In the second semifinal, Peyton Siva produced another near-flawless floor game and Louisville dominated No. 23 Notre Dame 64-50 to reach the title game for the third time in four years.
The championship matchup — between two unranked teams — will be the first Big East final without at least one original league member. The Cardinals lost at Cincinnati 60-56 on Feb. 23.
"I walked in the locker room and the guys had written 'We need to win one more' on the board. I didn't even have to write it," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said.
The top-seeded Orange (31-2) began the day with an 11-game winning streak. Yancy Gates and the Bearcats (24-9) ended it with a dazzling shooting performance in the opening 14 minutes, taking a 17-point lead before holding on when Syracuse got within one in the final seconds.
"It's a huge win for our program," 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."
Now, a squad that made headlines early in the season for a brawl against intra-city rival Xavier and sunk as low as losing at home to Presbyterian, has its seventh win over a ranked team this season, the most in the country.
Gates was one of four Cincinnati players suspended for the December fight with Xavier. He missed six games for throwing a blindside punch in the fracas. That all seems a long time ago.
The senior big man scored 18 points for Cincinnati, which rebounded from one of its worst 3-point efforts in the quarterfinals against No. 13 Georgetown with one of its best against the Orange.
Dion Waiters had 28 points for Syracuse, which closed within 69-68 with 5.4 seconds left when he made two free throws — even though he was trying to miss the second. Justin Jackson was all alone when he dunked with 1 second remaining for a three-point lead and Waiters' desperation heave from beyond midcourt was off at the buzzer.
"No matter who you're playing, the top half of our league, the game is never over," Cronin said. "Obviously it's like a home game for them, which makes the win even sweeter for us."
The sellout crowd of 20,057, which included plenty of orange, came alive as Syracuse chipped away at the lead. 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 getting an opportunity to play for a sixth Big East title and first since 2006.
It was the second straight year Syracuse lost in the semifinals. Connecticut beat the Orange 76-71 in overtime last season on its way to the tournament title.
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