Mark Story: Harrellson's storybook season ends sadly, but Jorts made his mark

Harrellson's storybook season has a sad ending, but senior won't be forgotten

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 3, 2011 

HOUSTON — The Jorts joyride was a blast.

Josh Harrellson and his feel-good, farewell tour with Kentucky basketball rolled through Tampa and Newark and became one of the major national story lines of the 2011 NCAA Tournament.

How could you not find inspiration in the tale of a guy going from 6-foot-10 afterthought in 2010 to one of the stars of this season's Big Dance.

But deep in the heart of Texas, the Big Josh steam engine finally went off the rails.

Connecticut (31-9) halted Kentucky's bid for an eighth NCAA championship two victories short of success Saturday night with a 56-55 Final Four victory in front of 75,421 in Reliant Stadium.

Kentucky (29-9) was making its first Final Four appearance since claiming the 1998 NCAA title — and it showed.

The Cats endured a horrid first half, shooting a miserable 9-for-32 from the field. Harrellson, who had missed only eight shots (25-for-33) in four NCAA games coming into the Final Four, missed three (1-4) in the first half Saturday.

"I couldn't knock down anything in the first half," Harrellson said afterward. "I had a bunch of 1-footers, a bunch of good looks, and I just couldn't make anything."

Harrellson's unproductive first half was, in part, because of foul trouble. He picked up his second on a blocking call with 6:39 left and sat out the rest of the first half. UK went into the locker room at halftime down 31-21. Harrellson said part of the problem was Final Four stage fright.

"I think everybody was a little nervous," he said. "Nobody on our team has ever been this far before. I think we came out tight in the first half. In the second half, I felt like we really turned it up and came out loose."

UK started the second half with an 11-2 run that cut UConn's lead to 33-32. Harrellson contributed a follow-shot basket to that run.

For the remainder of the game, the contest was a taut, gut-wrencher. Harrellson gave Kentucky a 37-35 lead with a dunk at 14:25.

That turned out to be the final basket Harrellson would score wearing No. 55 in UK blue.

UK was forced to play from behind for most of the remainder of the game, but UConn could never put the Cats away.

Down 54-48 with 2:30 left, Kentucky cut it to 54-52 on four straight points from DeAndre Liggins. Connecticut's Shabazz Napier turned the ball over with 16.6 seconds left, giving UK a shot to tie or take the lead.

A Kentucky team that had already beaten Princeton and Ohio State with late-game heroics didn't have any this time. Liggins' long three from the right wing with around five seconds left missed.

UConn's Napier drained a pair of free throws, and, in this case, Brandon Knight's buzzer-beating three was meaningless.

Just like that, Harrellson's UK career was over.

The big man came into the post-game news conference with a white towel over his head and red-rimmed eyes.

Has any Kentucky basketball player ever gone from — mostly — career non-factor to highly productive folk hero in his senior year in the way Harrellson did?

The guy who got a chance to play only because Turkish big man Enes Kanter was declared ineligible by the NCAA became, in many ways, the face of the team that ended the longest Final Four drought in Kentucky basketball history.

Who will ever forget Harrellson's effort play in the West Virginia game in the NCAA round of 32 when he just kept rebounding the basketball until he could get it in the basket?

Or his pounding defense against Ohio State big man Jared Sullinger in UK's upset of the tournament No. 1 overall seeded Buckeyes.

UK fans will likely replay on YouTube for all eternity the play where Harrellson threw that fastball off the chest of Sullinger to preserve possession of the basketball.

What a ride for the guy that Billy Gillispie famously banished to the toilet at halftime of a loss at Vanderbilt in 2009.

After coming into the Final Four with averages of 14.8 points and 9.0 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament, it seems highly likely that Harrellson could hear his name called in the next NBA Draft.

"It makes me happy because I may have a career after Kentucky now," Harrellson said. "That's what I am going to be focusing on now."

After scoring six points and grabbing four rebounds in his final time wearing the UK blue, the St. Charles, Mo., product was asked what these final weeks playing so well for Kentucky had meant to him.

Said Josh Harrellson: "It meant the world to me."

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