Josh Harrellson playing like UK fans hoped Kanter would
Kentucky head coach John Calipari hugs Josh Harrellson after an an East regional semifinal game against Ohio State in the NCAA college basketball tournament Friday, March 25, 2011, in Newark, N.J. Kentucky won the game 62-60. ((AP Photo/Julio Cortez))
“And I went to mass and I thought better of it and thought and said, ‘You are going to condition for 30 minutes before every practice and then you are going to practice or you can quit,’” said Calipari here Friday night.
Calipari — and Kentucky fans — is glad he didn’t do more to Harrellson after the center posted a Twitter message wondering why the coach didn’t praise him more. Harrellson accepted the workout challenge, got in better shape and now is a huge reason UK will play North Carolina Sunday in the NCAA Tournament East Region final.
He had 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting from the field and 3-for-3 at the foul line along with 10 rebounds and three blocked shots in a 62-60 upset win over No. 1 Ohio State. It was his eighth double-double of the year, third in postseason play and second in the last three NCAA games. He’s shooting 21-for-27 (77.8 percent) from the field in three NCAA games and is averaging 15.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocked shots per game in NCAA play.
“I'm not sure if I have ever been this proud of a young man who is going to do what he wants to do now. But he changed. He did it himself. It's not what I did. We put him on stage, but they have to perform,” said Calipari.
Harrellson helped make Ohio State freshman star Jared Sullinger at least labor for his 21 points and 16 rebounds. Sullinger had four turnovers in 39 minutes and had just one blocked shots as Harrellson’s offense came close to offsetting the follow shots and free throws Sullinger made.
Calipari took exception to a pregame story he saw indicating that if UK had freshman Enes Kanter, who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA, that Kentucky would have had a much better chance to beat Ohio State.
“We started calling him Enes in practice. He played like Enes,” junior DeAndre Liggins said.
“Coach told us to in practice to call him Enes. That (the story) was disrespectful to Josh because he is playing. So we all just thought we would call him Enes,” freshman Terrence Jones said. “He just went out there with something to prove and didn’t want his season to end as a senior. You could tell he was playing with that emotion not to lose and didn’t want to finish out his season in this game.
“He is aggressive. He is not the same Josh. The way he played was just different.”
Ohio State coach Thad Matta noticed.
“I think Harrellson is probably the most underrated player in college basketball,” Matta said. “He’s a tremendous player and knows his role and does it well. He did a great job bodying up (on Sullinger) and preventing him from getting the ball to the follow-through.”
Harrellson made several notable plays, but his biggest probably came with 1 minute, 6 seconds left when he forced Sullinger to miss a baseline shot with UK leading 58-57. Harrellson’s defense was so tight that Sullinger’s shot hit the side of the backboard.
“I gave up an offensive rebound right before that and gave up an easy lay-up. I didn't really contest it, so I was going to try to make it up for my teammates. I was trying to be big,” Harrellson said. “I had a couple of inches on them. We were the same weight, so I was trying to be bigger than him, and he threw it off the side of the backboard and I went for the rebound, and that was a key play right there.
“I have been guarding the best guys in the country for the last two years with DeMarcus (Cousins), Daniel (Orton), Pat (Patterson), and this year guarding Enes and it gives me an edge guarding Jared Sullinger, one of the best in the nation. Going against Enes, it gives me more confidence coming into this game.”
Harrellson credited teammates for his offensive production even though he had five offensive rebounds
“I have to be thankful for my teammates for doing that. They got me open. Easy drop-offs to me and I was finishing and they came back on pick-and-rolls,” he said.
Backup center Eloy Vargas was thrilled with the way Harrellson played.
“It was great to see him play like that. They were talking about we could not win without Enes. He has been playing mean lately because that is what we need to win and keep winning,” Vargas said.
Harrellson even once slammed the ball off Sullinger as he was about to lose it going out of bounds to retain possession for UK. “He told me he just did that to get the rebound and not to cause problem, but I think it sent a message to Sullinger,” Vargas said.
Kentucky sophomore Jon Hood was on the SportsReach exhibition trip to China last summer when Harrellson sometimes dominated play. He’s not surprised by what Harrellson is doing.
“You all said Josh has just gotten better all of sudden. I don’t think he has just got better like that. It has just come out of him. In China he destroyed everybody. Chinese, Russians, it didn’t matter. He did it to everybody,” Hood said. “I have seen Josh play like this. This is a step up from what I have seen, but everybody in here knew he had it. He just had to bring it out and now he’s really doing that.”