Mark Story: Harrison twins turn season around at right time

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 23, 2014 

ST. LOUIS — The night before what may well prove to have been the defining game of his Kentucky career, Andrew Harrison was considering not even playing in UK's NCAA Tournament showdown against undefeated Wichita State.

Harrison's right elbow, the one he hyper-extended in a round of 64 victory over Kansas State on Friday, was not feeling all that great by Saturday evening.

"I wasn't going to play at first," Harrison said.

Amidst the uncertainty, one person in the UK camp said he felt confident Andrew Harrison would play.

"He knew we needed him," Aaron Harrison said of his twin brother and backcourt partner. "I've known him for awhile, so I thought, I knew, he was going to play."

Man, oh man, did Andrew Harrison play.

In as good an NCAA Tournament basketball game as one could ever hope to see, No. 8 seed Kentucky spoiled No. 1 seed Wichita State's bid for a perfect season with a thrilling 78-76 victory Sunday afternoon in the Midwest Regional before 19,676 fans in the Scottrade Center.

The level of play (UK shot 54 percent; WSU 55.1) was so high, UK Coach John Calipari said, "This was an elite eight game. The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four."

On an afternoon of heartbreak for the gutty Shockers (35-1), Kentucky heroes were many. Yet there were none bigger than the 6-foot-6 twin brothers who had borne much of the brunt of fan and media criticism for UK's disappointing regular season.

Point guard Andrew, sore elbow and all, logged 34 minutes and scored 20 efficient points. He hit 6 of 9 field goals and 7 of 9 foul shots. He did turn it over six times, but more than compensated with relentless drives to the basket over smaller Wichita State defenders to score or get fouled.

Shooting guard Aaron, playing all but one of the game's 40 crazily intense minutes, had 19 points and four three-pointers for the Cats (26-10). The most memorable of his treys was the one he banked in from 25 feet with 6:54 left to tie the score at 60.

When that one went in, you sort of knew this was going to be Kentucky's day.

Under tournament pressure against a foe that had not lost before, Andrew looked nothing like the player who hit only 16 of 57 shots in UK's final six regular-season games. Aaron bore no resemblance to the guy who missed 32 of his 43 shots in Kentucky's last four pre-SEC Tournament games.

Calipari said the turnaround for the twins was initiated late in the year when the coach figured out some things — he didn't specify — about how Andrew needed to play to succeed.

"I did not do a great job with him early in the year," Calipari said. "I didn't. And I'm the first to admit it. ... I tweaked a couple of things for him, and all of a sudden he's playing different, he's got a smile on his face."

Once Andrew started feeling more comfortable in his role, Calipari said, Aaron started playing better, too.

"You don't believe this, they kind of feed off of each other a little bit," Calipari said. "As (Andrew) played better, guess what? (Aaron) played better."

As Sunday's game played out against the shorter Wichita State backcourt, it seemed the Harrison twins — and 6-6 UK swingman James Young (13 points, five crucial ones in a row late) realized they could get to the lane anytime they wished.

"In the end, they just basically lowered their head. It seemed they were just driving it," Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall said of Kentucky. "And we were having too much body contact. For the first time this year, it seemed like the rules, the new (freedom of movement) rules, worked against us as opposed to in our favor. So credit them."

On Sunday, a UK team that seemed to buckle under the weight of stratospheric pre-season expectations during a rocky regular season found itself in a possession-by-possession NCAA stress test against, arguably, the team with the toughest minds and strongest stomachs in college basketball in 2013-14.

Yet with its previously much-maligned freshman guards leading the way, it was Kentucky, not veteran-heavy Wichita State, who found a way to win.

Amidst the post-game UK smilefest, someone asked Andrew Harrison how his injured elbow was feeling.

"I am better now," Andrew Harrison said. "I'm good."

So was his brother.

Together, the Harrison twins were a prime reason why Wichita State at last tasted defeat, and Kentucky is bound for a sweet 16 date with the Louisville Cardinals.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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