Syracuse's standout senior center rebounded from his worst game of the season, scoring 29 points and blocking four shots, and Syracuse beat No. 12 Louisville 69-59 on Wednesday night.
It was the first game between the teams as members of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Louisville (20-6, 8-5) was out to bounce back from Saturday's home loss to North Carolina State. But the Cardinals were without senior guard Chris Jones, suspended for violating team rules; Jones did not make the trip.
"We missed him a lot," Pitino said. "It's his selfishness that hurt the team. I believe in punishment."
Freshman Quentin Snider made his first start in place of Jones, the team's assist leader (3.7 per game) and third-leading scorer (13.6 points). Snider finished with a season-high 13 points of 5-of-13 shooting and had four assists with no turnovers.
Louisville led most of the first half and held a 43-38 lead early in the second. Syracuse, which trailed by four at the break, closed to 43-42 on a hook by Christmas in the lane. Less than two minutes later he sank two free throws to put the Orange ahead after Montrezl Harrell was called for his third foul.
Snider's jumper put the Cardinals back up 47-44 before Kaleb Joseph responded with a driving scoop and Christmas converted a three-point play and a dunk off a feed from Michael Gbinije to give the Orange a 51-47 lead. They never trailed again.
"It wasn't his (Snider's) play," Pitino said. "It was Wayne Blackshear getting in foul trouble. We missed a lot of shots that would have kept us in the game in the second half that were wide open."
The Cardinals, who snared only two steals for the second straight game, have lost three of four and two straight after leading at the half. Louisville shot 9 of 28 (32.1 percent) in the second half while the Orange hit 11 of 19 (57.9 percent).
"We couldn't give them the pressure. It's tough with a makeshift lineup," Pitino said. "What's stopping us from being a very good basketball team — the last three years we've been one of the most feared defensive teams in the nation with steals, turnovers. We've just been void of both."
Pitino said Jones could return for the next game, but only if he responds in the manner expected.
"I don't care if he sits the whole season," Pitino said.
Reeling from a 5-for-17 shooting performance in a loss to No. 4 Duke and being outplayed by standout freshman center Jahlil Okafor on Saturday, Christmas responded like a champion. He was 9 of 10 from the floor and 11 of 13 on free throws.
"It felt good. We needed a win like this ... to keep us going the rest of the season," Christmas said after the Orange's first victory this season over a ranked team in four tries. "We all talked about keeping our heads up and getting ready for tonight's game. Everybody had their mind right and played hard."
Christmas faced his second straight challenge in Louisville's hulking freshman center Chinanu Onuaku and stalwart forward Harrell, who entered the game with nine double-doubles.
Harrell finished with 15 points and nine rebounds, but only scored three points in the decisive second half. Terry Rozier led the Cardinals with 17 points while Blackshear, averaging nearly 11 points, fouled out late and did not score.
"They started picking up on our calls and started knowing what we were going to run," Harrell said. "Wayne in foul trouble early, it kind of hurt us. We let Christmas get comfortable. He caught the ball freely and had a great game. We just didn't play enough team defense in the second half."
Gbinije continued his stellar play for the Orange, finishing with 18 points, six assists, and a monster block at the rim on Rozier. Tyler Roberson had 13 points and nine rebounds.
Syracuse trailed for most of the game before Christmas led it back, scoring 18 in the second half. The Orange iced it by hitting 7 of 8 free throws in the final 63 seconds.
Louisville: Louisville has lost only three times in the last 81 games when leading at halftime. ... Onuaku is the brother of former Syracuse center Arinze Onuaku. ... Louisville leads the series with Syracuse 15-8.
Syracuse: Gbinije is averaging 22.3 points and 4.5 assists in the month of February. ... Roberson has scored in double figures eight times.
Louisville hosts Miami on Saturday.
Syracuse hosts Pittsburgh on Saturday.
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