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.
The Bearcats shredded Syracuse's famed 2-3 zone from the start, making six of their first seven 3-point attempts. They made eight of their first 10 shots from beyond the arc in taking a 34-17 lead with 5:43 left in the first half, with Kilpatrick going 4 of 4. That was one point shy of Syracuse's biggest deficit this season, and that came at Notre Dame in its only loss. It was only the third time this season the Orange trailed by double figures.
The sellout crowd of 20,057, which was wearing a lot of orange, was stunned as Syracuse shot 31 percent in the first half (9 of 29), while the Bearcats went 13 of 26 and had an assist on all but one of the field goals. A modest 6-1 run to close the half had Syracuse within 35-23.
The crowd came alive as the Orange chipped away at the lead. They became the team with the touch from 3-point range, shooting 9 of 17 in the second half while Cincinnati missed its first six 3s. Kilpatrick made the Bearcats' only 3s of the second half in nine attempts, the second from the left corner as the shot clock ran out that made it 65-55 with 1:47 to play.
"Cashmere just told me to stay in the corner, and then Coach was telling me to go to the corner because Kris Joseph, he was going to come up and play Cash because Cash was hot, as well, throughout the game," Kilpatrick said. "Once he played Cash, I was just wide open, so it was a good thing that Cash caught me."
The Orange, though, weren't done.
Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph and Waiters all made a 3 in the final 37 seconds. Waiters' 3 made it 68-66 with 17 seconds to play.
JaQuon Parker made one of two free throws with 15.6 seconds left. Waiters was fouled before he could get off a possible tying 3-pointer. He made the first and when the second went through the net, he turned to the Syracuse bench with slumped shoulders as he apparently tried to miss it to give the Orange one last chance.
"No matter who you're playing, the top half of our league, the game is never over," Cronin said. "It's human nature to flinch a little bit when they come. Obviously it's like a home game for them, which makes the win even sweeter for us. But we hesitated for a little bit and didn't attack their pressure. Once we started attacking their pressure, we were able to get it back to a 10-point lead.
"I kept telling the guys in the timeouts, this is going to be a crazy ending and we're going to win by more than 10 because we got to break the press. I have seen them play. When they get behind, they're going to come. They're not going to sit back in that zone. They're going to come. So we did a pretty good job after our initial hesitation of attacking their pressure."
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.
"We've won 31 games, and we've proven what we can do and we've got to get back and we have to play a little better from the beginning," Boeheim said. "Most national championships, not all, but a lot of them, have been won by teams that lose in their conference tournament, including us. So as much as we want to win this tournament, the tournament that starts next week is the only one that matters. Nothing else matters anymore in college basketball."