The senior forward, who missed the first nine games of the season with torn cartilage in his right knee, hit two key free throws with 21.5 seconds remaining as the Cardinals held off New Mexico State 70-65 in the sixth annual Billy Minardi Classic in front of 19,021 fans at Freedom Hall.
"He's only taken about 5,000 since he's been out," UofL coach Rick Pitino said. "That's the only thing he's been able to do."
That could be why Palacios – who had sat out the previous four minutes of the game before re-entering with 22 seconds to play - showed no nerves as he stepped to the foul line with the Cards clinging to a three-point lead.
"I didn't think about anything, I just went in and got fouled and hit my free throws," Palacios said afterward.
Those proved to be Palacios' only points of the game.
"Big shots," added Earl Clark of the free throws by Palacios, the only holdover from UofL's 2005 Final Four team. "He's been there before, it's nothing new to him."
Andre McGee led Louisville (7-3) with 15 points, while Clark added 14 points and nine rebounds. Terrence Williams and Edgar Sosa chipped in 11 points apiece. T-Will also grabbed nine rebounds and dished out four assists. In addition to the two free throws Palacios was 0-for-2 from the field with three rebounds, two steals, one block and one assist in 13 minutes.
"I only wanted to play him about 10 minutes, but we needed someone with a good basketball IQ out there today," Pitino said.
That's because the Aggies (5-9), who were picked to finish first in the WAC in the preseason media poll, made things hard on the Cards. Justin Hawkins scored 25 points to pace New Mexico State, which played without a few key reserves due to suspension, but kept the game close by shooting 47.2 percent (25 of 53), including 46.7 percent (7 of 15) from three-point range.
"They played like a wounded tiger," Pitino said. "(But) a win's a win, that's the old adage. We didn't shoot the ball well or play very good defense, we just go from here."
The Cards shot just 37.1 percent (23 of 62) from the field and despite a 15-point lead in the first half and a 14-point lead in the second half, they couldn't close out the New Mexico State until the final minute.
The Aggies rallied behind some scorching second-half shooting. They hit 16 of 28 second-half shots (57.1 percent), including 6 of 8 (75 percent) from three-point range.
"We fell a little short," said New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies, who spent the previous two seasons as an assistant coach at UofL. "Our guys are just so close to being really, really good. We showed that tonight in spurts – we've just got to get a little stronger in certain areas."
UofL led 35-23 at halftime.
The Cards took control with a 10-0 run midway through the first half. Williams hit back-to-back threes, Jerry Smith knocked down a jumper and Terrance Farley punctuated the spurt with a dunk as UofL's lead went from 22-17 to 32-17.
Williams and Clark each scored nine points and each scored in different ways. All of Williams' points came on three-pointers, while Clark's three baskets came on tip-ins of missed shots as the Cards outscored the Aggies 10-2 in second chance points. Palacios played 10 minutes, checking in during a timeout just 2:43 into the game, and missed his only first-half shot attempt. However he did contribute three rebounds, one assist, one block and one steal.
Hawkins paced New Mexico State with 10 points in the first half.
UofL seemed out of sync to start the second half before McGee's three straight threes got the Cards rolling. McGee's last three in that stretch gave UofL a 46-32 lead with 16:11 to play. The Cards maintained that lead for the next six minutes before the Aggies made a mad push in the final 10 minutes.
Jahmar Young's three with 5:45 to play capped an 11-2 New Mexico State surge and pulled the Aggies within 61-57. Sosa answered with a three-pointer of his own, but New Mexico State wouldn't go away.
"Those guys made great shots, every time we made shots they answered and hit great shots," Smith said.
Afterward the mood in the Louisville locker room was somber.
"We should've come out and gave a better effort, but in the end a win is a win," Sosa said.
UofL next hosts Morehead State at 7 p.m. Wednesday.