Mark Story: Restored confidence turns Aaron Harrison into Kentucky's Mr. Big Shot

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 4, 2014 

ARLINGTON, Texas — The complaint I hear most often from identical twins is that people tend not to see them as unique individuals. So, for this column, we will set aside the phrase "Harrison twins" and dea l strictly with Kentucky's Aaron Harrison.

If you identify the three biggest shots that have allowed Kentucky (28-10) to advance to Saturday evening's Final Four meeting with Wisconsin (30-7), two have been hit by the 6-foot-6 freshman from Richmond, Texas.

Harrison's three-pointer from the deep left corner with 39 seconds left put UK ahead to stay in its NCAA Tournament round of 16 grudgefest with archrival Louisville. It was Harrison's contested trey with 2.3 seconds left that beat Michigan in the Midwest Region finals and propelled UK to its 16th Final Four.

(The third shot on the list would be James Young's go-ahead three-point bomb with 1:37 left in Kentucky's round of 32 win over previously unbeaten Wichita State).

The Harrison bomb that brought Kentucky to Jerry World and sent Michigan back to Ann Arbor landed the UK guard on the (regional) cover of Sports Illustrated this week.

"Someone sent me a picture (of the cover)," Harrison said Friday inside AT&T Stadium, "and I thought it was a joke. It's an unreal feeling to be on Sports Illustrated."

On a team whose post-season transformation has been staggering, perhaps no single player's performance has more epitomized UK's turnaround than Harrison's.

In the last 10 games of the Kentucky regular season, Harrison shot 12-for-41 (29.3 percent) on three-pointers. In the NCAA Tournament, he is 13-for-24 (54.2 percent).

Inquiring minds pressed Harrison on Friday over what led to his surge in long-range accuracy.

During the regular season, Harrison said, he was putting too much pressure on himself and letting missed shots erode his faith.

"Just thinking about failing too much, thinking about what people were saying (about his play)," he said. "If I didn't make a shot, I think I would take it so hard, I would lose confidence."

The seeds that allowed Harrison's game to bloom under the hothouse lights of March Madness were planted when his father and former AAU coach, Aaron Harrison Sr., visited Lexington late in the season to talk with the UK starting backcourt: his twins sons Aaron and Andrew.

"That was huge for me," Aaron Harrison the younger said. "He took a lot of pressure off us, told us to go back to playing basketball like we used to. It gave me a lot of confidence back, actually."

Fellow UK freshman Marcus Lee said the Aaron Harrison of the NCAA Tournament has shooter's swag to spare.

"When he misses a shot, he's like 'I missed? When?'" Lee said. "He goes about it like he's made every shot, just keep shooting them. That's what I love about him."

During UK's charge through the NCAA tourney, Harrison's late-game heroics have marked a definitive return to "playing basketball like (he) used to."

Do a YouTube search, and you can find video of a rather remarkable game-winning trey Aaron Harrison hit to lead his high school, Travis, past Westfield in a tournament game. His dad told Sports Illustrated that Aaron had the game-winning shot in 12 of 70 AAU games the Houston Defenders played in the player's final year on the team.

Asked Friday how many game-winning buckets he recalls making in his overall career, Aaron pondered.

"Maybe seven to 10," he said.

UK is apt to need the best Aaron Harrison can bring Saturday evening against Wisconsin. As a program, Bo Ryan's Badgers might seem more stolid than sexy, but don't be fooled.

The Wisconsin of 2013-14 has a sterling résumé, with victories over three NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeds (Arizona, Virginia, Florida) and a nation's-best 21 wins over teams ranked in the RPI Top 100.

The Kentucky who is on that Sports Illustrated cover has the Badgers' attention.

"He's really good at getting to the basket. He's got good size and length," Wisconsin guard and defensive stopper Josh Gasser said of Aaron Harrison. "He showed against Michigan, he's not afraid to take the big shot and knock it down."

Whatever happens against the Badgers — or afterward — Aaron Harrison has gone from late-regular season struggler to Big Dance hero. "I got a big burden off my shoulders and started playing basketball again," he said.

For Kentucky, you might say his impact has been singular.

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

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