By Derek DeBurger
Louisville had its heart ripped out in Madison Square Garden by Max Abmas and the No. 19 Texas Longhorns for the whole country to see.
In a game that no rational person would’ve told you the Cards could compete, Louisville took it down to the wire to give the fanbase hope this season can be salvaged.
A hungry team
Louisville came out in Sunday’s game with the most energy they’ve played with this year. Even after Texas jumped out to a nine-point lead early in the first half, the game never once felt out of reach. Guard Skyy Clark helped to steady his team and claw back into the game.
Clark wasn’t the only calming presence, it came across as if none of the players were afraid of the moment. Forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield showed exactly why he was a former five-star recruit with a game-high nine rebounds, and providing some great defensive stops. Tre White had 20 points in the game, including some important buckets to keep the Cardinal’s momentum up. New York native Ty-Laur Johnson provided a huge boost every time he came off the bench, and delivering big with 14 points and a team-leading six assists.
As a team, Louisville just looked hungry. They fought for loose balls, they boxed out on rebounds and they ran effective set plays. The offense was humming.
For everything great the Cards did on offense — and there were a lot of greats — the defense was just not up to par. It looked eerily similar to the Cards squad at the end of last year: the offense put up points but the defense did just about nothing to stop anyone. The difference between this year’s team and last is the massive athleticism gap. If the Cards can come out in each game with this same intensity, they can compete with anyone.
Another problem was that the team was clearly not used to being in these situations, and that was evident at the end of the first half. Down only one point, the Cards could’ve held the ball for the last possession and potentially gone up by a point or two, but instead, a turnover let Texas get out in transition and push the lead to three.
A back and forth second half
The second half was just more of the first, which was actually a good thing for once. Louisville got a quick three to tie the game 41-41. The rest of the second half was a thrilling back-and-forth that saw constant lead changes.
Availability became a big factor in the second as multiple Texas players suffered injuries that seemed to linger throughout the game, and Louisville experienced crucial foul trouble. Huntley-Hatfield and center Dennis Evans both fouled out of the game at different points late in the second severely limiting the rotation options.
With less than three minutes in the game, Texas led 75-74. A huge three from Clark gave the Cards a 77-75 lead. After the Longhorns took back 78-77, another massive three from Clark gave the Cards the lead 80-78 with just over a minute to go.
A foul put forward Dillon Mitchell on the free throw line with a chance to tie, but he only hit one of the two free throws. With 37 seconds left, the Cards had the ball with a chance to extend the lead. After the inbound, however, those chances quickly faded as the Cards fumbled the ball at the end of the shot clock, and a mad dash for the ball led to a shot-clock turnover.
Texas only had seven seconds down one point. The ball was inbounded to Max Abmas, and Clark picked him up defensively. Clark played nearly perfect defense, but the fadeaway shot with a hand in his face was still good, and Texas stole one from the well-deserving Cards.
The final score was 81-80.
Snatched defeat from the jaws of victory
This is somehow the most conflicted I have felt about the Cards since head coach Kenny Payne took the job in March of 2022.
The roster is a tournament-caliber roster, and Texas’ roster is filled with talent, too, Sunday’s game showed that if the Cards just play with hustle and energy they can compete with anyone.
Louisville has the capacity to compete like this night in and night out, but doesn’t. There was a stretch of games last season where the Cards were highly competitive against several good teams including Virginia and Miami, the latter of which went to the Final Four.
I don’t know whether to expect this going forward or to just enjoy this while it lasts. Louisville falls to 2-2 on the year.
Photo Courtesy // Adam Creech, Louisville Athletics