The Louisville men’s basketball team began last season with three consecutive 1-point losses, setting the stage for the worst season in program history. On Monday night, the Cards flipped the script.
Although a less dramatic start to Kenny Payne’s second act would have been met with a much warmer reception.
Instead, U of L had to storm back from a double-digit second half deficit and survive a frenetic final minute to walk out of the KFC Yum Center with a 94-93 win over visiting UMBC in the season-opener for both teams.
With the win, Louisville now sits above .500 for the first time since Jan. 29, 2022.
The Cards were spurred to victory by a final sequence that, objectively, might have been the funniest I’ve ever seen in a college basketball game.
After squandering a 4-point lead that they’d held with 49 seconds to play, Louisville found itself with the ball in a tie game and 16 seconds to play. Tre White then made the inexplicable decision to drive straight to the basket for a wild shot attempt with tons of time remaining on the clock. After losing the ball, White then appeared to commit a foul on UMBC’s Franck Emmou. No foul was called, and instead the ball was wrestled away from Emmou and went straight to JJ Traynor for a bizarre go-ahead sort of alley-oop dunk.
UMBC, which shot 11-of-21 from three for the game, then passed up on a couple of open looks from beyond the arc that could have won the game. The Retrievers instead opted to go inside to Khydarius Smith, who appeared to catch the ball with both feet clearly out-of-bounds on the baseline. Despite seeming to be staring directly at Smith, referee Bert Smith did not blow his whistle ... at least until Smith was fouled on a shot attempt moments later.
Smith made the first free-throw, missed the second, and then a mad scramble mercifully brought the game to a close.
“We needed this win” Payne said after the game. “I could sit here and talk strategy, but those guys just fought and got it.”
Louisville was paced by the tireless Mike James, who scored 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. James made 13 of his 14 attempts from the free-throw line, while his teammates went just a combined 11-of-25 from the charity stripe.
Traynor (13), Ty-Laur Johnson (12), Skyy Clark (11) and White (11) all joined James in scoring in double figures, as Louisville tied for the second most points it has scored in a game since 2019. Brandon Huntley-Hatfield collected 10 rebounds to go along with five points.
On the other end of the floor, the Cardinal defense was consistently atrocious. U of L allowed a UMBC team picked to finish sixth in the nine-team America East to shoot 50.7 percent from the floor and 52.4 percent from three. Thankfully, the Retrievers misfired on 10 of their 22 free-throw attempts.
It was bad, and I’m not going to pretend like it wasn’t, but they found a way to win on Denny Crum night. That’s something.