TAMPA — For Josh Harrellson, the four stitches he needed above his eye to close a cut were more like a badge of honor than a bother.
The Kentucky senior center continued his remarkable postseason play with 15 points on 7-for-10 shooting, eight rebounds and one blocked shot to help the Wildcats beat West Virginia 71-63 and advance in the NCAA Tournament.
Harrellson said the stitches came after his blocked shot when he took an inadvertent elbow.
“It was an accident, and it happens in basketball games,” said Harrellson.
However, his play is no accident.
He’s scored 13 or more points in four of UK’s five postseason games and is averaging 12.2 points and 8.6 rebounds in those games, all Kentucky wins.
“I always thought he was a good player, but I never quite expected this out of him,” said first-year UK assistant coach Kenny Payne. “The amount of fight he has now and the way he has embraced that and reached another level. He truly believes he’s a good player now, and he is.
“He just has that continuous effort to go after the ball. He’s relentless. It’s pretty remarkable for a kid who basically had lost hope of playing and now he’s fought and worked to improve to the point that he can do this.”
Harrellson barely played in three NCAA games last year and played less than 100 total minutes all season.
The UK senior admitted he wasn’t even sure there would be times like this for him until the season started.
“Every day until about I guess our first game this season, I never knew it was going to happen. I never thought I'd be the type of player I am. I just worked hard and did a lot of conditioning and changed my body and changed my mindset, and it helped me out in the long run,” Harrellson said.
Harrellson got a chance to play more when Enes Kanter was declared ineligible by the NCAA. However, he also got in Calipari’s doghouse with a Tweet in the preseason wondering why the coach didn’t praise him more that resulted in him having to do extra conditioning — something he voluntarily continued after Calipari ended his punishment.
“He’s in as good of shape as a guard,” Payne, who works daily with Harrellson, said. “He’s reaching levels we talked about and has pushed beyond what he thought he could do. You guys (in the media) have no idea how much running, how many suicides (sprints) and other things he had to do to get to this point. I am very proud of him.”
Calipari said after the game that he started to sense maybe in the Louisville game when Harrellson had 23 points and 14 rebounds that he might become far better than the coach ever imagined.
“When you watch a player like Josh, it's not me. I don't have a magic wand. What you try to do is talk to them about what they have to change to change the result of how they're playing, which means you've got to change your body sometimes,” Calipari said.
“Other times, you've got to change your mentality. You have to stop listening to people say, well, if they did this with you and didn't give him all the shots, if you played this position better, and then you listen to that and you buy into it, you can't change, so you've got to stop listening.
“And then the other thing is you've got to change your skill set. You've got to change. If you don't change, there's no way the end result is going to change. You're going to be the same player. He's changed all that. You do that through hard work. You do it by spending extra time in the gym. You do it by conditioning extra, going in on weekends, going in on the evening.”
Now Harrellson, who made the all-Southeastern Conference Tournament team, has had back-to-back 15-point games in NCAA play and likely now will get a chance to test himself against Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger, who averages 17 points and 10.1 rebounds per game for the No. 1 Buckeyes, Friday in Newark, N .J.
“I’m just glad we won. I can’t even think about the next game yet,” Harrellson said. “Maybe a month and a half ago we would have won this kind of game, but not a month ago. We’ve grown up. We played tough today when we had to. I only had one rebound at half. I had to come out and do more.”
He did when he battled for offensive rebounds and scores that kept the Cats in the game and even earned praise from TNT basketball analyst Charles Barkley after the game.
Harrellson has played for three college coaches counting his junior college year. He says that’s helped him learn different things. But what he lacked until this year was big-game experience.
“This year the freshmen will come to me and ask me how this or that will be,” Harrellson said. “I tell them I can’t help them because it’s all new to me, too. This is my first time doing all this stuff, too, but so far it has been a lot of fun.”