NEW YORK — Max Abmas rose up over Skyy Clark. His high-arching shot swished through the net with .4 seconds on the clock.
And what could have been the biggest win for Louisville men’s basketball during the Kenny Payne era turned into its 11th consecutive loss against a ranked opponent, 81-80 to Texas on Sunday in Game 2 of the Empire Classic at Madison Square Garden.
While the Longhorns (4-0) stormed the court at the world’s most famous arena, the Cardinals (2-2) walked off it in anguish.
They didn’t roll over and go through the motions after falling behind 16-7 within seven minutes of tipoff. They came out of the locker room and threw the opening punches of the second half. They didn’t stop fighting in a game that had 21 lead changes. They held an 80-79 advantage over a team fresh off a trip to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight with 7.9 seconds remaining.
All to have their record reflect their effort the same way it does a lopsided loss to Chattanooga earlier this month.
But Payne saw it as a turning point. This was the first time all season, he said, where his players performed in a game the way they do in practice.
If the goal for this trip was to, as he said after beating Coppin State on Wednesday, “show the world the growth” that’s occurred between Year 1 to Year 2 of his rebuild, the mission was accomplished.
“That’s the team I want to show up every night,” he said.
So, how did he address the group afterwards, knowing they tip off again in less than 24 hours against cross-state rival Indiana?
To paraphrase what he recounted to reporters during the postgame news conference: “I hope that now I don’t have to fight you on the little things. I hope you understand why I push you the way I push you — so that, when you’re in these battles, we come out on top.
“We know we’re not going to get the ball bouncing in our favor, we still have to win. That’s what it is.”
The little things are what ultimately cost Louisville what would have been its first win over a ranked opponent since a Jan. 6, 2021, victory over No. 20 Virginia Tech at the KFC Yum! Center.
Texas scored 16 points off of 11 U of L turnovers on a night it shot just 2 for 17 from beyond the arc. The Cards won the rebounding battle, 38-37, but Texas had four more boards on the offensive end.
Two of them occurred during the final minute and change of regulation, helping the Longhorns stay within striking distance after 3-pointers from Clark on back-to-back possessions.
Louisville’s leading rebounder, Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, and its 7-foot-1 freshman, Dennis Evans, had both fouled out by then.
Texas’ Dillon Mitchell came up with a rebound after a teammate missed a free throw and drew a foul on Mike James. He stepped to the line with 59 seconds to go and his team trailing 80-78 and made the first of two shots.
The second one didn’t go, and Texas came up with another rebound. But the Cards forced a shot-clock violation, and regained possession with a 80-79 lead and 37 seconds on the clock.
Clark brought the ball up to midcourt, but chaos ensued when the Longhorns trapped a ball screen.
The second-year Illinois transfer nearly turned the ball over twice, giving the opposition what would have been a wide-open path to a go-ahead bucket. He dove on the floor to collect the ball and flipped a pass to freshman Ty-Laur Johnson only to have the shot clock expire.
“I got to be more aware,” he said.
Clark and sophomore Tre White led U of L with 20 points apiece while combining for 12 rebounds and four assists. Johnson, a Brooklyn native, shined with 14 points and six assists in 25 minutes off the bench. JJ Traynor scored 11 to go along with six rebounds; Huntley-Hatfield had 11 points and nine boards.
We’ll find out if they’re able to do it all again, while weathering any new adversity that comes from playing on back-to-back days. But the growth is real.
“Our team can compete with anybody,” White said. “I think we showed that, even though we didn’t play our best basketball.”
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Reach Louisville men’s basketball reporter Brooks Holton at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on X at @brooksHolton.