After three nerve-wracking, down-to-the-wire games decided by five points in overtime and then one and two points, it was clear Louisville coach Chris Mack would welcome being able to relax down the stretch for a change.
Wednesday night he got that opportunity in the Carrier Dome. Unfortunately, this wasn't quite what he had in mind.
Syracuse (18-8, 9-4) had firm control of the game from the midway point of the first half, and when crunch time rolled around, the Cards had long since been crunched themselves and it was only a matter of how big the Orange's margin was going to be. It wound up being 69-49, Louisville's worst defeat of the season, topping the 71-58 loss to Kentucky.
It was the second game in a row UofL (18-9, 9-5) had struggled offensively, having squeaked past Clemson 56-55 on Saturday, and its lowest point total since a 68-46 loss at Virginia on March 5, 2016.
The loss was also the Cards' fourth in the last six games and knocked them into into a tie for sixth place in the ACC with Virginia Tech going into Saturday's home game against No. 3 Virginia (23-2, 11-2), which has owned them since they joined the league in 2015.
UofL probably hoped that Syracuse would be looking ahead to Saturday's highly-anticipated game against No. 1 Duke. Instead, the Cards served as a tasty appetizer for the weekend's entree.
In a nutshell, UofL simply couldn't solve Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone defense, executed by tall players with big wingspans that make it difficult to get uncontested shots or penetration. The Cards looked uncomfortable and baffled all evening while shooting just 26 cent overall (14-54) and 21 percent from 3-point range (6-28), both season lows by a wide margin. They also committed 13 turnovers, which the winners converted into 16 points.
Although Syracuse didn't burn up the nets either, at 38.6 percent overall (22-57) and 36.7 (11-30) from distance, Mack said his players let their poor offense affect their defensive effort.
"Our mentality against the zone, when we started missing shots, we started feeling sorry for ourselves," he said. "Then defensively we started letting the ball down the lane more than we have in the last four or five games. Guys were going right to the rim in the first half. And we never recovered. We tried to change tempo in the second half going diamond press, but when we got a steal we couldn't convert. Never had an answer, being able to hit a shot."
"We want to get inside the zone first and foremost and once we got the ball inside the zone, whether it was baseline finish or a spray-out three, we missed some shots early on and and I just think us missing shots affected our whole mentality, unfortunately."
Jordan Nwora was Louisville's only double-figure scorer with 11 points, but he missed 10 of his 13 shots and was 1-of-5 from behind the arc. Dwayne Sutton and Christen Cunningham, the team's next two top scorers, were even worse, as was designated shooter Ryan McMahon.
Sutton missed 10 of 11 shots while scoring five points and Cunningham missed all six of his field goal tries. The usually reliable McMahon was 2-of-8, all from 3-point land.
Syracuse, which was coming off a 73-58 loss at NC State in which it was 5-of-25 on treys (20 percent) and was only a one-point favorite Wednesday, was led by junior forward Elijah Hughes with 18 points on 4-of-10 threes. Sophomore forward Oshae Brissett, who was 1-of-9 with two points against the Wolfpack, added 16 points and eight rebounds. Junior guard Tyus Battle had 11 points and seven assists, while Buddy Boeheim -- son of coach Jim Boeheim -- came off the bench to drill 4-of-9 trifectas en route to 14 points.
UofL suffered through scoring droughts of 3 1/2 and six minutes, and went 15 1/2 minutes in the first half with just one field goal as Syracuse began pulling away with a 19-5 run that resulted in a 33-17 cushion.
Louisville trailed 35-23 at halftime and history wasn't on its side since the Cards have managed only nine comeback victories in the past 45 seasons when trailing by 12 points or more at intermission.
The Cards scored the first four points of the second half to narrow the gap to 35-27, but that was the only time they were within single digits after the 6-minute mark of the first half.
Next, UofL is faced with the difficult task of trying to snap out of its offensive funk against one of the best defensive teams in the nation. Virginia is allowing its ACC opponents only 57.7 ppg and 37.8 percent shooting.
"We've got to play with better energy," Mack said. "We can't let offensive woes or shooting struggles sap us like it has the last couple games. Guys are thinking too much about the Duke game and the ending of that. We've got to get past that and be able to look forward. There's a lot of games to be played and playing for a lot of stakes, but you wouldn't be able to tell that tonight."