If Kenny Payne wanted to add to the confusion surrounding his future with the University of Louisville basketball team, the most unlikely thing he could have done was to guide his team to a 22-point win over Pepperdine.
Almost certain that he could not avoid a third straight loss to a lowly underdog. But that’s exactly what Louisville did on Sunday, handing Pepperdine an 85-63 defeat. Payne managing to win his fifth game this season and his ninth win against 35 losses in two seasons at UofL.
There was significant doubt coming in that Payne would even make it to the game, the rumors swirling at an all-time high. Reports of discontent and possible friction, or worse, within the team. The weariness with all the losing certainly extended to the fan base, many of which were hoping the rumors were true.
Sorry to disappoint but unless the unexpected happens before Thursday, Payne will be on the bench against the University of Kentucky. Not something any diehard UofL fans want to see, a happy reunion betweeen Payne and John Calipari, his old boss at UK. Turning the holiday season of cheer into a painful reminder of how low the UofL program has sunk under Mr. Payne.
UofL fans know not to expect a repeat of Sunday’s results against Pepperdine, which was witnessed by a reported 10,475 at the KFC Yum! Center. But they will have to admit that it was nice seeing the Cardinals actually compete for a change. They were not only competitive, with a rare domination of another team during Payne’s tenure.
The Cardinals fell behind briefly 5-2 at the start, but quickly outraced the visitors to a 22-11 lead and were never seriously threatened thereafter. Out-rebounding Pepperdine 43-27, out-shooting them 48.7% to 40.4%. At one point, the Cardinals owned a 30-p0int lead over the visitors.
Biggest surprise of all was UofL’s Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, tapping into previously untapped potential, coming through with a rare show of leadership. Playing like a man possessed, leading all scorers with 22 points and 12 rebounds, along with a couple of blocks and two assists.
Something got into Huntley-Hatfield. Maybe it was the booing from Louisville fans during the loss to lowly Arkansas State. “I never want to get booed like that again,” he said.
Maybe the fans got their message across. Maybe not. Or the players were reacting to all the criticism and the expected departure of their coach. We will never know for sure but something got to them. At least for one game.
Nothing to get overexcited about. The real test of strength comes Thursday against the next opponent.