LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- After watching forward Terrence Williams spend a half lazily hoisting 3-pointers over Syracuse's 2-3 zone, Louisville coach Rick Pitino decided it was time to give his most versatile player a pep talk.
"[He told me] that I'm not dogging it, but I'm not playing to the best of my ability, like I'm just out there coasting," Williams said. "So I kind of took it upon myself to get in the middle of the zone and penetrate."
As Williams has discovered during his three years with the Cardinals, his coach is usually right.
Led by Williams' 12 second-half points -- most of them coming on forays to the rim -- the Cardinals (No. 23 ESPN/USA Today, No. 18 AP) held off Syracuse 61-50 on Monday night to keep pace with Georgetown (No. 11 ESPN/USA Today, No. 12 AP) atop the Big East.
"It goes back to the maturity of this team, we're able to take what our coaches say, listen, go out and perform," Williams. "Two years ago or last year somewhat, you could have told us something it would have taken us two games, three games to get what he was saying."
The Cardinals (21-6, 11-3 Big East) won their season-high sixth straight despite getting just 17 minutes and one point from do-everything center David Padgett, who battled foul trouble for much of the night.
In Padgett's place stepped Williams, Andre McGee (12 points) and a handful of reserves who helped the deeper Cardinals wear down the Orange (17-10, 7-7), who played just seven players. Louisville's bench outscored Syracuse's 21-4, and the Cardinals pounded Syracuse on the glass 53-35.
"We have so many people that are contributing, it's such an advantage to have guys come off the bench and play like they did," Padgett said. "We just want to stay focused and try to be aggressive."
That aggressiveness helped Louisville hold Syracuse to 29 percent shooting -- 20 points below its season average. Syracuse's 50 points were also a season-low, and the Orange appeared totally gassed in the final two minutes as Louisville ended the game on a 9-0 run.
"If defense is our staple, I guess we've got to play defense," Williams said. "Coach told us there would be nights like this. When you get into the tournament, you're going to have off shooting nights. What are you going to do to help your team win? You have to play defense like that. We had no other choice."
The Cardinals appeared to break open a close game when Williams finished a spectacular dunk over Donte Greene that gave Louisville a 50-40 lead with 8:20 to go.
Syracuse managed to get within one possession, cutting it to 52-50 on a putback by Arinze Onuaku with 2:20 remaining. Williams, however, hit a jumper from the corner and Earl Clark swiped the ball on Syracuse's next possession. The Cardinals missed a shot, but Williams ran it down, eventually leading to McGee's fourth 3-pointer that pushed the lead to 57-50 with 53 seconds remaining to seal it.
"This team has battled as hard as you ask it to," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. "It's difficult to play three [times] in six days. Some fatigue will play a part of it."
Onuaku led Syracuse with 16 points and Paul Harris added 13, but the Orange found few openings in Louisville's tough 2-3 defense. Donte Greene and Jonny Flynn, who helped the Orange knock off Georgetown on Saturday, combined for 17 points on 6-of-28 shooting.
"We were going to stop Greene and Flynn," Pitino said. "We really wanted to get out on them and wear them out."
Though the Cardinals were hardly spectacular offensively -- shooting just 37 percent -- their ability to chase down loose balls made the difference. Louisville collected 19 offensive rebounds that led to 19 second-chance points, preventing the Orange from upsetting a ranked-opponent for the second straight game.
Syracuse attacked Louisville's zone relentlessly in the first half, getting the Cardinals in serious foul trouble. Padgett played just over four minutes in the half after picking up two fouls, and Derrick Caracter wasted little time collecting three.
Still, the Orange couldn't take advantage, thanks to horrendous shooting and an inability to keep Louisville off the offensive glass. Syracuse shot just 24 percent from the floor in the first half and allowed the Cardinals eight second-chance points as the teams limped into the locker room tied at 26.
"If we'd played better offense it still would have been a good game," Boeheim said. "But the way we shot, if they'd shot well it would have been over at halftime."