No. 10 Louisville beats No. 12 Syracuse 58-53

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — When Louisville coach Rick Pitino threw off his coat, it was game-on.

Miffed by two straight fouls against Luke Hancock when the 10th-ranked Cardinals trailed No. 12 Syracuse by a point with time running out, Pitino stomped on the sidelines as he altered his courtside wardrobe and his team responded with a late spurt for a 58-53 victory Saturday, silencing another huge Carrier Dome crowd.

"We had a couple of real tough calls go against us and veteran teams don't let it bother you," Pitino said. "They dig in. It bothered me, but it didn't bother the players."

Cool under fire despite the two quick fouls, Hancock hit a 3-pointer from the left corner to break a 48-all tie with 50 seconds left as the Cardinals exacted a measure of revenge for a loss to the Orange earlier this season.

"It's big," said Hancock, who hit 4 of 5 from behind the arc for all of his points in the game. "This was like a tournament game. It was that kind of atmosphere. This prepares us well. It definitely gives us confidence going into the end of the season. We want to win out the rest of our games and this was another step."

It was the third straight loss for Syracuse (22-7, 10-6 Big East), which was humbled 57-46 in a loss to No. 7 Georgetown a week ago before a record Carrier Dome crowd of 35,012. That snapped the Orange's 38-game home winning streak, and they were beaten again, 74-71, at No. 22 Marquette on Monday night to drop into a tie in the Big East with Notre Dame behind the league-leading Hoyas, Louisville and Marquette.

Louisville (24-5, 12-4) snapped a three-game losing streak against Syracuse, and the Cardinals did it before a stunned crowd of 31,173. The victory moved Louisville into a tie with Marquette (21-7, 12-4), which beat Notre Dame, one-half game behind the Hoyas (22-4, 12-3), who played later Saturday.

Russ Smith led Louisville with 18 points and Gorgui Dieng finished with 11 points and 14 rebounds as the Cardinals overcame a poor offensive performance by point guard Peyton Siva. Siva failed to score, missing eight 3-pointers, but had four assists and no turnovers.

C.J. Fair had 19 points to lead the Orange, James Southerland added 13 and point guard Michael Carter-Williams 11.

Syracuse, which trailed 23-19 at halftime, its fewest points in a first half this season, outrebounded Louisville 41-36 but was victimized by eight 3s and shot poorly again (20 of 56 for 35.7 percent). Senior guard Brandon Triche, one of the heroes in the win over Louisville in mid-January with 23 points, had just eight on this day, going 2 for 11 from the field and missing all three of his tries from long range. Syracuse's starting guards finished 5 of 21 overall and 1 of 7 on 3-pointers, while Triche had a game-high seven turnovers.

"We can't have him (Triche) play this way," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "He works his tail off. He's a good teammate. He wants to win, but I don't like the way he's playing right now. I don't like the way we're playing. We need to get something offensively."

After Hancock swished a straight-on 3 for Louisville, Fair hit a spinning layup as Dieng fouled him but missed the free throw and Syracuse trailed 41-40 with 7:34 to go.

Louisville began to press and the strategy paid off with two straight turnovers. Southerland lost the ball off the dribble and Triche mishandled an inbounds pass. The Cardinals took advantage as Dieng sank two free throws and Hancock hit a 3 from the wing for a 47-40 lead at 5:35, the biggest edge by either team in the game.

Carter-Williams scored six straight points in a span of just over a minute to rally the Orange, hitting four free throws and a shot off the glass as Syracuse trailed 47-46 with 4:27 left. Fair's baseline jumper gave Syracuse the lead and Smith's free throw tied it at 48-all with 1:39 to go.

After Triche missed a baseline layup against Dieng, Hancock stole Triche's ensuing inbounds pass and Hancock drained his fourth 3 off a slick pass to the corner from Smith to break the tie. Smith then hit two free throws and Triche's turnover sealed the Orange's fate as the Cardinals hit 7 of 8 free throws in the final seconds.

"We had the lead. We just lost it at the end," Southerland said. "We just have to have the mentality that when we have the ball, we're not going to lose it. Unfortunately, we had some tough turnovers at the end of the game that definitely changed the outcome.

"We just have to forget about this game and move forward. This is stuff teams go through. The best thing about it is it's better to go through it now than in the tournament because you only have one chance then."

Syracuse beat Louisville 70-68 in mid-January in the final seconds when Carter-Williams stole a pass at the top of the key and raced the length of the court, slamming home a two-hander that Dieng couldn't contest and landing hard on his back underneath the backboard. A record crowd of 22,814 at the KFC Yum! Center saw Syracuse beat a No. 1 team for fourth time, and the Cardinals are still the only top-ranked team to lose at home this season.

The Louisville players said they weren't thinking revenge. They're just happy to be playing at a high level after their fifth straight win.

"It wasn't a revenge game. We did what we were supposed to do," Dieng said. "Anyone can beat anybody in the Big East. We need to win all the games (left) and do what we're supposed to do, and the rest is going to take care of itself."

Syracuse, which trailed 23-19 after a poor first half, briefly found a way to foil Dieng, Louisville's shot-blocking defensive ace, early in the second half. Carter-Williams fed Rakeem Christmas for a slam dunk and less than a minute later Southerland slammed another home to complete a three-way passing play in the lane with Christmas and Triche to move Syracuse within 28-27.

With Dieng on the bench, Southerland, who had just one basket in the first half, then drained a 3 from the top of the arc to give Syracuse just its second lead of the game. It was short-lived as Kevin Ware hit a 3 from the top of the key 24 seconds later.

"It's March," Ware said. "Tournament time is right around the corner. We told ourselves yesterday every game is like an NCAA game. We don't want to lose. We want to keep this win streak going."

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U.S. evolves on same-sex marriage


  • The president and the nation have shifted perspectives on same-sex marriage

  • Supreme Court ruling on California's same-sex marriage ban a critical test

  • Growing public support for gay marriage give proponents hope for change

Washington (CNN) -- The nation's growing acceptance of same-sex marriage has happened in slow and painstaking moves, eventually building into a momentum that is sweeping even the most unlikely of converts.

Even though he said in 2008 that he could only support civil unions for same-sex couples, President Barack Obama nonetheless enjoyed strong support among the gay community. He disappointed many with his conspicuously subdued first-term response to the same-sex marriage debate.

Last year, after Vice President Joe Biden announced his support, the president then said his position had evolved and he, too, supported same-sex marriage.

So it was no small matter when on Thursday the Obama administration formally expressed its support of same-sex marriage in a court brief weighing in on California's Proposition 8, which bans same-sex weddings. The administration's effort was matched by at least 100 high-profile Republicans — some of whom in elections past depended on gay marriage as a wedge issue guaranteed to rally the base — who signed onto a brief supporting gay couples to legally wed.

Obama on same-sex marriage: Everyone is equal

Then there are the polls that show that an increasing number of Americans now support same-sex marriage. These polls show that nearly half of the nation's Catholics and white, mainstream Protestants and more than half of the nation's women, liberals and political moderates all support same-sex marriage.

According to Pew Research Center polling, 48% of Americans support same-sex marriage with 43% opposed. Back in 2001, 57% opposed same-sex marriage while 35% supported it.

In last year's presidential election, same-sex marriage scarcely raised a ripple. That sea change is not lost on the president.

"The same evolution I've gone through is the same evolution the country as a whole has gone through," Obama told reporters on Friday.

Craig Rimmerman, professor of public policy and political science at Hobart and William Smith colleges says there is history at work here and the administration is wise to get on the right side.

"There is no doubt that President Obama's shifting position on Proposition 8 and same-sex marriage more broadly is due to his desire to situate himself on the right side of history with respect to the fight over same-sex marriage," said Rimmerman, author of "From Identity to Politics: The Lesbian and Gay Movements in the United States."

"I also think that broader changes in public opinion showing greater support for same-sex marriage, especially among young people, but in the country at large as well, has created a cultural context for Obama to alter his views."

For years, Obama had frustrated many in the gay community by not offering full-throated support of same-sex marriage. However, the president's revelation last year that conversations with his daughters and friends led him to change his mind gave many in that community hope.

Last year, the Obama administration criticized a measure in North Carolina that banned same-sex marriage and made civil unions illegal. The president took the same position on a similar Minnesota proposal.

Obama administration officials point to what they see as the administration's biggest accomplishment in the gay rights cause: repealing "don't ask, don't tell," the military's ban on openly gay and lesbian members serving in the forces.

Then there was the president's inaugural address which placed the gay community's struggle for equality alongside similar civil rights fights by women and African-Americans.

"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well," Obama said in his address after being sworn in.

In offering its support and asserting in the brief that "prejudice may not be the basis for differential treatment under the law," the Obama administration is setting up a high stakes political and constitutional showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court over a fast-evolving and contentious issue.

The justices will hear California's Proposition 8 case in March. That case and another appeal over the federal Defense of Marriage Act will produce blockbuster rulings from the justices in coming months.

Beyond the legal wranglings there is a strong social and historic component, one that has helped open the way for the administration to push what could prove to be a social issue that defines Obama's second term legacy, Rimmerman said.

The nation is redefining itself on this issue, as well.

Pew survey: Changing attitudes on gay marriage

The changes are due, in part, to generational shifts. Younger people show a higher level of support than their older peers, according to Pew polling "Millennials are almost twice as likely as the Silent Generation to support same-sex marriage."

"As people have grown up with people having the right to marry the generational momentum has been very, very strong," said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, a gay rights organization.

That is not to say that there isn't still opposition.

Pew polling found that most Republicans and conservatives remain opposed to same-sex marriage. In 2001, 21% of Republicans were supportive; in 2012 that number nudged slightly to 25%.

Conservative groups expressed dismay at the administration's same-sex marriage support.

"President Obama, who was against same-sex 'marriage' before he was for it, and his administration, which said the Defense of Marriage Act was constitutional before they said it was unconstitutional, has now flip-flopped again on the issue of same-sex 'marriage,' putting allegiance to extreme liberal social policies ahead of constitutional principle," Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said in a statement.

But there are signs of movement even among some high profile Republican leaders

Top Republicans sign brief supporting same-sex marriage

The Republican-penned friend of the court brief, which is designed to influence conservative justices on the high court, includes a number of top officials from the George W. Bush administration, Mitt Romney's former campaign manager and former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman.

It is also at odds with the Republican Party's platform, which opposes same-sex marriage and defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Still, with White House and high-profile Republican support, legal and legislative victories in a number of states and polls that show an increasing number of Americans support same sex-marriage, proponents feel that the winds of history are with them.

"What we've seen is accelerating and irrefutable momentum as Americans have come to understand who gay people are and why marriage matters," Wolfson said. "We now have a solid national majority and growing support across every demographic. We have leaders across the spectrum, including Republicans, all saying it's time to end marriage discrimination."

CNN's Peter Hamby, Ashley Killough and Bill Mears contributed to this report.

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Red light camera firm admits it likely bribed Chicago official

Chicago's embattled red light camera firm went to City Hall on Friday in its latest effort to come clean, acknowledging for the first time that its entire program here was likely built on a $2 million bribery scheme.

By its sheer size, the alleged plot would rank among the largest in the annals of Chicago corruption.

An internal probe of Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. and a parallel investigation by the city's inspector general — prompted by reports in the Chicago Tribune — have cost the company its largest North American contract and all of its top executives.

On Friday the company announced the resignations of its president, its chief financial officer and its top lawyer. The head of Redflex's Australian parent company conducted town hall meetings at the headquarters of its Phoenix-based subsidiary to tell employees there was wrongdoing in the Chicago contract and that sweeping reforms were being instituted to win back the company's reputation.

In separate, private briefings with the city inspector general and with Mayor Rahm Emanuel's top lawyer, Redflex attorneys acknowledged it's likely true that company officials intended to bribe a Chicago city official and that they also plied him with expenses-paid vacations.

The company's outside investigator, former city Inspector General David Hoffman, found that Redflex paid $2.03 million to a Chicago consultant in a highly suspicious arrangement likely intended to funnel some of the money to the former city transportation official who oversaw the company contract, according to sources familiar with the investigation and the Friday briefings to city officials.

The arrangement between the city official, the consultant and Redflex — first disclosed by a company whistle-blower — will likely be considered bribery by law enforcement authorities, Hoffman found.

Without subpoena power, it was not possible to check personal financial records of the city official or the consultant, who refused to cooperate, according to the sources familiar with Hoffman's findings. But Hoffman, a former federal prosecutor, said that under applicable law, authorities could consider the arrangement to be bribery even if the payments were not made, the sources said.

The bulk of the consultant's fees — $1.57 million — were paid during a four-year period beginning in 2007, the years the program really expanded in Chicago, Hoffman found.

In addition, the city transportation official was treated to 17 trips, including airfare, hotels, rental cars, golf outings and meals, the sources said. Most of those expenses were paid by the company's former executive vice president, Hoffman found. That official was fired late last month and blamed by the company for much of the Chicago problem.

But Hoffman found that Redflex's president also had knowledge of the arrangement that would have made any reasonable person highly suspicious that it was a bribery scheme, the sources said.

Hoffman also found that Redflex did not disclose its knowledge about the improper arrangement to City Hall until confronted by the Tribune in October. Even then, Hoffman found, company officials lied to Emanuel's administration about the extent of the wrongdoing.

Redflex's Australian parent company was expected to post a summation of Hoffman's findings in a Monday filing with the Australian Securities Exchange that will include the resignations announced to employees Friday.

"Today's announcement of executive changes follows the conclusion of our investigation in Chicago and marks the dividing line between the past and where this company is headed," Robert DeVincenzi, president and CEO of Redflex Holdings Ltd. said in a statement to the newspaper. "This day, and each day going forward, we intend to be a constructive force in our industry, promoting high ethical standards and serving the public interest."

The company will also announce reforms including installing new requirements to put all company employees through anti-bribery and anti-corruption training, hiring a new director of compliance to ensure employees adhere to company policies, and establishing a 24-hour whistle-blower hotline.

The actions mark the latest changes in the company's evolving accounts of the scandal.

Officials at the firm had repeatedly dismissed allegations of bribery in the Chicago contract since they were made in a 2010 internal complaint obtained last year by the Tribune. In October the Tribune disclosed the whistle-blower letter by a company executive and first brought to light the questionable relationship between former city official John Bills and the Redflex consultant, Marty O'Malley, who are longtime friends from the South Side.

Bills and O'Malley have acknowledged their friendship but denied anything improper about their handling of the Redflex contract.

"Totally false, but I appreciate you calling me," Bills told the Tribune on Friday when informed of the Hoffman findings. O'Malley did not return calls.

In the four-month investigation, Hoffman and his team conducted 58 interviews and reviewed more than 37,000 company documents including email traffic among company officials, sources said. Hoffman concluded that company officials used poor judgment and a serious lack of diligence in investigating the allegations contained in the whistle-blower memo.

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AP source: Flacco agrees to Ravens deal

A person with knowledge of the deal tells The Associated Press that Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco has agreed on a new contract with the Baltimore Ravens.

Flacco played out his rookie contract last season for $6.76 million and led Baltimore to the NFL championship. He cashed in Friday with the new deal, although terms were not immediately available.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the agreement has not officially been announced.

Fox Sports first reported the new deal.

The 28-year-old Flacco is the only quarterback to win a postseason game in each of his first five pro seasons. He had a spectacular playoffs and Super Bowl this year, throwing for 11 touchdowns with no interceptions.

He also holds the record for playoff road wins with six.

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Syria war is everybody's problem

Syrians search for survivors and bodies after the Syrian regime attacked the city of Aleppo with missiles on February 23.


  • Frida Ghitis: We are standing by as Syria rips itself apart, thinking it's not our problem

  • Beyond the tragedy in human terms, she says, the war damages global stability

  • Ghitis: Syria getting more and more radical, jeopardizing forces of democracy

  • Ghitis: Peace counts on moderates, whom we must back with diplomacy, training arms

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns

(CNN) -- Last week, a huge explosion rocked the Syrian capital of Damascus, killing more than 50 people and injuring hundreds. The victims of the blast in a busy downtown street were mostly civilians, including schoolchildren. Each side in the Syrian civil war blamed the other.

In the northern city of Aleppo, about 58 people -- 36 of them children -- died in a missile attack last week. Washington condemned the regime of Bashar al-Assad; the world looked at the awful images and moved on.

Syria is ripping itself to pieces. The extent of human suffering is beyond comprehension. That alone should be reason enough to encourage a determined effort to bring this conflict to a quick resolution. But if humanitarian reasons were not enough, the international community -- including the U.S. and its allies -- should weigh the potential implications of allowing this calamity to continue.

Frida Ghitis

Frida Ghitis

We've all heard the argument: It's not our problem. We're not the world's policeman. We would only make it worse.

This is not a plea to send American or European troops to fight in this conflict. Nobody wants that.

But before we allow this mostly hands-off approach to continue, we would do well to consider the potential toll of continuing with a failed policy, one that has focused in vain over the past two years searching for a diplomatic solution.

U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry has just announced that the U.S. will provide an additional $60 million in non-lethal assistance to the opposition. He has hinted that President Obama, after rejecting suggestions from the CIA and previous Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arm Syrian rebels, might be ready to change course. And not a day too soon.

The war is taking longer than anyone expected. The longer it lasts, the more Syria is radicalized and the region is destabilized.

If you think the Syrian war is the concern of Syrians alone, think about other countries that have torn themselves apart over a long time. Consider Lebanon, Afghanistan or Somalia; each with unique circumstances, but with one thing in common: Their wars created enormous suffering at home, and the destructiveness eventually spilled beyond their borders. All of those wars triggered lengthy, costly refugee crises. They all spawned international terrorism and eventually direct international -- including U.S. -- intervention.

The uprising against al-Assad started two years ago in the spirit of what was then referred to -- without a hint of irony -- as the Arab Spring. Young Syrians marched, chanting for freedom and democracy. The ideals of equality, rule of law and human rights wafted in the air.

Al-Assad responded to peaceful protests with gunfire. Syrians started dying by the hundreds each day. Gradually the nonviolent protesters started fighting back. Members of the Syrian army started defecting.

The opposition's Free Syrian Army came together. Factions within the Syrian opposition took up arms and the political contest became a brutal civil war. The death toll has climbed to as many as 90,000, according to Kerry. About 2 million people have left their homes, and the killing continues with no end in sight.

In fairness to Washington, Europe and the rest of the international community, there were never easy choices in this war. Opposition leaders bickered, and their clashing views scared away would-be supporters. Western nations rejected the idea of arming the opposition, saying Syria already has too many weapons. They were also concerned about who would control the weaponry, including an existing arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, after al-Assad's fall.

These are all legitimate concerns. But inaction is producing the worst possible outcome.

The moderates, whose views most closely align with the West, are losing out to the better-armed Islamists and, especially, to the extremists. Moderates are losing the ideological debate and the battle for the future character of a Syria after al-Assad.

Radical Islamist groups have taken the lead. Young people are losing faith in moderation, lured by disciplined, devout extremists. Reporters on the ground have seen young democracy advocates turn into fervent supporters of dangerous groups such as the Nusra Front, which has scored impressive victories.

The U.S. State Department recently listed the Nusra Front, which has close ties to al Qaeda in Iraq and a strong anti-Western ideology, as a terrorist organization.

Meantime, countries bordering Syria are experiencing repercussions. And these are likely to become more dangerous.

Jordan, an important American ally, is struggling with a flood of refugees, as many as 10,000 each week since the start of the year. The government estimates 380,000 Syrians are in Jordan, a country whose government is under pressure from its own restive population and still dealing with huge refugee populations from other wars.

Turkey is also burdened with hundreds of thousands of refugees and occasional Syrian fire. Israel has warned about chemical weapons transfers from al-Assad to Hezbollah in Lebanon and may have already fired on a Syrian convoy attempting the move.

Lebanon, always perched precariously on the edge of crisis, lives with growing fears that Syria's war will enter its borders. Despite denials, there is evidence that Lebanon's Hezbollah, a close ally of al-Assad and of Iran, has joined the fighting on the side of the Syrian president. The Free Syrian Army has threatened to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon if it doesn't leave Syria.

The possible outcomes in Syria include the emergence of a failed state, stirring unrest throughout the region. If al-Assad wins, Syria will become an even more repressive country.

Al-Assad's survival would fortify Iran and Hezbollah and other anti-Western forces. If the extremists inside the opposition win, Syria could see factional fighting for many years, followed by anti-democratic, anti-Western policies.

The only good outcome is victory for the opposition's moderate forces. They may not be easy to identify with complete certainty. But to the extent that it is possible, these forces need Western support.

They need training, funding, careful arming and strong political and diplomatic backing. The people of Syria should know that support for human rights, democracy and pluralism will lead toward a peaceful, prosperous future.

Democratic nations should not avert their eyes from the killings in Syria which are, after all, a warning to the world.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

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New budget crisis begins after Washington fiscal talks fail

The U.S. government stumbled headlong on Friday toward wide-ranging spending cuts that threaten to hinder the economic recovery, after President Barack Obama and congressional leaders failed to find an alternative budget plan.

Put in place during a bout of deficit-reduction fever in 2011, the automatic cuts can only be halted by agreement between Congress and the White House

"This is not going to be an apocalypse,” Obama told reporters at the White House  Friday. "It's just dumb. And it's going to hurt. It's going to hurt individual people, and it's going to hurt the economy overall."

A deal proved elusive in talks at the White House on Friday as expected, meaning that government agencies will now begin to hack a total of $85 billion from their budgets between Saturday and October 1. Financial markets in New York shrugged off the stalemate in Washington.

Democrats predict the cuts, known as "sequestration," could soon cause air traffic delays, furloughs for hundreds of thousands of federal employees and disruption to education.

While the International Monetary Fund warned that the belt tightening could slow U.S. economic growth by at least 0.5 of a percentage point this year, that is not a huge drag on an economy that is picking up steam.

Obama was resigned to government budgets shrinking.

"Even with these cuts in place, folks all across this country will work hard to make sure that we keep the recovery going, but Washington sure isn't making it easy," he said after meeting Republican and Democratic congressional leaders.

At the heart of Washington's persistent fiscal crises is disagreement over how to slash the budget deficit and the $16 trillion national debt, bloated over the years by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and government stimulus for the ailing economy.

Obama wants to close the fiscal gap with spending cuts and tax hikes, but Republicans don't want to concede again on taxes after doing so in negotiations over the "fiscal cliff" at the New Year.

"The discussion about revenue, in my view, is over. It's about taking on the spending problem," House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said on leaving the meeting.

The billions of dollars in cuts that go into effect on Saturday will probably be phased in over the coming weeks and months. Agencies from the Pentagon to the Department of Education have begun making plans to notify employees who will have to take unpaid days off.

Administration officials say the cutbacks in staffing will affect everything from air-traffic control to border security, preventive health screenings and prosecution of criminal cases. The automatic cuts were harsh by design, meant to force Republicans and Democrats into a bigger budget deal that reduces deficit spending.

No matter how Obama and Congress resolve the 2013 battle, this round of automatic spending cuts is only one of a decade's worth of annual cuts totaling $1.2 trillion mandated by the sequestration law.

Given the current absence of a deal, Obama is required to issue an order to federal agencies by midnight to reduce their budgets. The White House budget office must send a report to Congress detailing the spending cuts.

The Justice Department has already sent notices of furloughs that will begin April 21 at the earliest to some 115,000 workers, including at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Unlike previous fiscal dramas, the sequestration fight is not rattling Wall Street.

U.S. stocks rose moderately on Friday, with the Dow Industrials closing up 35 points, as data showed manufacturing expanded at its fastest pace in 20 months in February. Despite being up more than 7 percent this year, and near a record high, the discord in Washington has not prompted traders to cash in gains.

"Most of us believe that sequestration is not something that will make us fall off the cliff, since the cuts will be worked in relatively slowly," said Bill Stone, chief investment strategist at PNC Wealth Management in Philadelphia.

Poll shows GOP beraing blame

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Wall Street ends flat after late fade; S&P up for fourth month

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks ended flat on Thursday, giving up modest gains late in the session, denying the Dow a chance to inch closer to all-time highs.

The S&P 500 still managed to close out February with a fourth straight month of gains. JC Penney Co Inc was the day's biggest loser, falling 17 percent to $17.57 after the department store operator reported a steep drop in sales.

The U.S. economy grew slightly in the fourth quarter, a turnaround from an earlier estimate showing contraction, and a drop in new claims for unemployment benefits last week added to a batch of data suggesting the economy continues its sluggish improvement.

The Dow was within striking distance of its record high after a year-to-date advance of more than 7 percent. The Dow's record closing high, set on October 9, 2007, stands at 14,164.53, while the Dow's intraday record high, set on October 11, 2007, stands at 14,198.10.

The Dow Jones Transportation Average <.djt>, seen as a bet on future growth, is up 12.9 percent this year, and the 20-stock index hit a record intraday high earlier on Thursday.

"To push through to new highs, you would have to see consistent positive economic data in the U.S. and have Europe stabilize - those are two pretty big requirements," said Jeff Morris, head of U.S. equities at Standard Life Investments in Boston.

"It wouldn't surprise me to see us bounce around as we have the past couple of weeks," Morris added.

Volume was low for most of the session until quarterly index-rebalancing activity hit the tape at the very close of trading.

After a strong January with gains of more than 5 percent, both the Dow and the S&P 500 found gains tougher to come by in February. Minutes from the Federal Reserve's January meeting sparked concerns that the central bank may pull back on its stimulus measures sooner than expected, while looming U.S. budget cuts and turbulent Italian elections tempered investors' aggressiveness.

But concerns about Fed policy were eased by testimony from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke before a congressional committee earlier this week, as he defended the policy of buying bonds to keep interest rates low to boost growth, despite worries some have about possible inflation.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> shed 20.88 points, or 0.15 percent, to 14,054.49 at the close. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> lost 1.31 points, or 0.09 percent, to 1,514.68. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> fell 2.07 points, or 0.07 percent, to end at 3,160.19.

For the month, the Dow rose 1.4 percent, the S&P 500 gained 1.1 percent and the Nasdaq advanced 0.6 percent.

Limited Brands and Netflix ranked among the best-performing consumer stocks. Shares of Limited Brands, the parent of retailers Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works, gained 2.3 percent to $45.52. The stock of video streaming service Netflix climbed 2 percent to $$188.08.

In contrast, shares of Groupon Inc fell on weak revenue, with the daily deals company's tumbling 24.3 percent to $4.53.

Cablevision slumped 9.6 percent to $13.99 after the cable provider took a $100 million hit on costs related to Superstorm Sandy and posted deeper video customer losses than expected.

On a positive note, Mylan Inc gained 3.6 percent to $29.61 after the generic drugmaker posted a 25 percent rise in fourth-quarter profit and said it will buy a unit of India's Strides Arcolab Ltd.

Investors were keeping an eye on the debate in Washington over U.S. government budget cuts that will take effect starting Friday if lawmakers fail to reach agreement on spending and taxes. President Barack Obama and Republican congressional leaders arranged last-ditch talks to prevent the cuts, but expectations were low that any deal would emerge.

Volume was modest with about 6.81 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, NYSE MKT and Nasdaq, slightly above the daily average of 6.46 billion.

Advancing stocks slightly outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,518 to 1,446. On the Nasdaq, the decliners had a slight edge, with 1,247 shares falling and 1,201 stocks rising.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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AP Source: Salary cap increases to $123 million

An NFL Players Association official familiar with the league's salary-cap negotiations tells The Associated Press the figure for the 2013 season will rise to $123 million from $120.6 million in 2012.

The official spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity Thursday because no formal announcement had been made.

The increase is a result of greater-than-expected revenues last season — primarily from NFL Properties — and a jump in projected league revenues, according to the official.

The league and the union work together to establish a cap number, based on parameters established under their collective bargaining agreement. The current 10-year CBA was signed in August 2011, ending the owners' lockout of the players.

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Syria war is everybody's problem


  • NEW: France considers sending Syrian rebels night-vision gear and body armor, a source says

  • Britain's foreign secretary says the UK will announce new aid soon

  • The statements after European Union loosens restrictions to allow nonlethal aid to rebels

  • The U.S. will also send non-lethal aid to rebels for first time, plus $60 million in administrative aid

Rome (CNN) -- The United States stepped further into Syria's civil war Thursday, promising rebel fighters food and medical supplies -- but not weapons -- for the first time in the two-year conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives and laid waste to large portions of the country.

Meanwhile, European nations began to explore ways to strengthen rebel fighters that stop short of arming them after a European Council decision allowing such aid to flow to Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the aid would help fighters in the high-stakes effort to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a conflict that has already spawned an enormous humanitarian crisis as refugees flee the fighting.

The ongoing fighting also poses the persistent threat of widening into a destabilizing regional crisis, including concerns that Hezbollah, Iran or others could gain control in Damascus after al-Assad's government falls.

"The United States' decision to take further steps now is the result of the continued brutality of a superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah, all of which threatens to destroy Syria," Kerry said after meeting opposition leaders in Rome.

Kerry didn't say how much that aid would be worth, but did announce that the United States would separately give $60 million to local groups working with the Syrian National Council to provide political administration and basic services in rebel-controlled areas of Syria.

READ: U.S. weighing nonlethal aid to Syrian opposition

That's on top of $50 million in similar aid the United States has previously pledged to the council, as well as $385 million in humanitarian assistance, Kerry said.

"This funding will allow the opposition to reach out and help the local councils to be able to rebuild in their liberated areas of Syria so that they can provide basic services to people who so often lack access today to medical care, to food, to sanitation," he said.

Islamist Influence

That aid is partly an effort to hem in radical Islamist groups vying for influence in Syria after the fall of al-Assad, a senior State Department official told CNN.

"If the Syrian opposition coalition can't touch, improve and heal the lives of Syrians in those places that have been freed, then extremists will step in and do it," the official said.

Sheikh Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, president of the Syrian National Council, said concerns about Islamist influence had been overstated.

"We stand against every radical belief that aims to target Syria's diverse social and religious fabric," he said.

READ: Inside Syria: Exclusive look at pro-Assad Christian militia

U.S. officials hope the aid will help the coalition show what it can do and encourage al-Assad supporters to "peel away from him" and help end the fighting, the official said.

The opposition council will decide where the money goes, Kerry said.

But the United States will send technical advisers through its partners to the group's Cairo headquarters to make sure the aid is being used properly, the senior State Department official said.

Additional aid possible

The European Council carved out an exception in its sanctions against Syria on Thursday to allow for the transfer of nonlethal equipment and technical assistance for civilian protection only.

The council didn't specify what kind of equipment could be involved.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday on Twitter that his country would be pledging new aid because "we cannot stand still while the crisis worsens and thousands of lives are at stake."

A diplomatic official at the French Foreign Ministry told CNN that France is studying the possibility of supplying night-vision equipment or body armor.

"It is in the scope of the amendment," the official said.

In the United States, President Barack Obama is thinking about training rebels and equipping them with defensive gear such as night-vision goggles, body armor and military vehicles, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

The training would help rebels decide how to use their resources, strategize and maybe train a police force to take over after al-Assad's fall, one of the sources said.

READ: Syrian army in Homs is showing strains of war

Kerry did not announce that sort of aid Thursday, but said the United States and other countries backing the rebels would "continue to consult with each other on an urgent basis."

An official who briefed reporters said the opposition has raised a lot of needs in the Rome meetings and the administration will continue to "keep those under review."

"We will do this with vetted individuals, vetted units, so it has to be done carefully and appropriately," the official said.

Humanitarian crisis

The conflict began with demands for political reform after the Arab Spring movement that swept the Middle East and Africa, but descended into a brutal civil war when the al-Assad regime began a brutal crackdown on demonstrators.

At least 60,000 people have died since the fighting began in March 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in early January.

Another 940,000 had fled the country as of Tuesday, while more than one in 10 of Syria's 20 million residents have been forced to move elsewhere inside the country because of the fighting, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said.

The situation is nearing crisis proportions, with the dramatic influx of refugees threatening to break the ability of host nations to provide for their needs, Assistant High Commissioner Erika Feller told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Tuesday

"The host states, including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and the North African countries, have been exemplary in their different ways, but we fear the pressure will start to overwhelm their capacities," she told the council, according to a text of her remarks posted on the United Nations website.

Al-Khatib said it's time for the fighting to stop.

"I ask Bashar al-Assad for once, just once, to behave as a human being," he said. "Enough massacres, enough killings. Enough of your bloodshed and enough torture. I urge you to make a rational decision once in your life and end the killings."

READ: Syrian war is everybody's problem

Jill Dougherty reported from Rome, and Michael Pearson reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh and Elise Labott also contributed to this report.

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Groupon founder Andrew Mason fired; shares jump

Groupon on Thursday ousted its CEO, company co-founder Andrew Mason, replacing him with two current directors amid increasing heat about the deal site's disappointing financial performance.

In a letter to employees, Mason said he was fired, with a playful and self-deprecating addition: "If you're wondering why ... you haven't been paying attention."

"From controversial metrics in our (initial public offering) to two quarters of missing our own expectations and a stock price that's hovering around one quarter of our listing price, the events of the last year and a half speak for themselves," Mason continued. "As CEO, I am accountable."

As far back as November, Groupon and Mason were forced to respond publicly to a report that he would lose his job. Reports surfaced at the time that Groupon's board was considering replacing Mason with a more experienced CEO to lead the Chicago-based daily deal company's turnaround.  

The board said it's searching for a permanent replacement. For now, Executive Chairman Eric Lefkofsky -- an original investor -- and Vice Chairman Ted Leonsis will share the task.

The company said its earnings expectations for the first quarter and full year outlined on Wednesday remain unchanged.

Investors appear to applaud Mason's departure, driving shares up in after-hours trading after a brutal regular session in which the stock lost a quarter of its value. Shares had plummeted in continuing fallout from a weaker than expected earnings report and forecast on Wednesday. The stock jumped 8 percent after hours on the news and was at $4.70, up nearly 4 percent, at 5:26 p.m.

Mason, a 32-year-old Northwestern University graduate, has come under fire for a series of missteps including controversy during its IPO and not finding a quick enough solution for its financial struggles.

Arvind Bhatia, a senior research analyst at Sterne Agee who recently upgraded Groupon to a "buy" with a $9 price target, said he expected Mason to have a few more quarters to prove himself, but the plummeting stock price likely forced the board to make a move.

"I think the reaction to the stock pushed them over the edge," Bhatia said. "It was basically saying that the market is not giving Andrew a vote of confidence, and I think the board took that message seriously."

Groupon, which was founded in 2008, was once a red-hot company that sparked a number of deal site competitors by marketing discounts on local services such as spas and restaurants to millions of online subscribers.

It turned down a nearly $6 billion buyout offer by Google in 2010 that at the time was thought to undervalue the company. A year later, it ended its first day as a public company worth $16 billion.

But it has lost about three-quarters of its value since it went public. On Thursday, its market capitalization was less than $3 billion, according to Capital IQ.

The scrutiny of Groupon was tremendous, given the "high-flying" nature of the company and the culture created and fostered by Mason, observers said.

That culture turned from a lovable quirk to a major liability as the company ran into controversy over its poorly received Super Bowl ads two years ago and a series of missteps before its IPO. Then, within months of its public debut, it disclosed an accounting flaw that forced it to restate financial results.

The larger question surrounding Groupon -- the long-term viability of its basic business model -- remains. The company has been expanding offerings beyond its core daily deals, where growth has slumped.

On Wednesday, the company posted a fourth-quarter net loss of $81.1 million, or 12 cents a share, missing Wall Street's expectations for a profit. Revenue for the quarter was up 30 percent, in line with analysts' views.

Groupon also warned Wednesday that its turnaround would take time, suggesting it will likely cut employees and overall expenses.

Tribune reporter Robert Channick contributed.

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