DENVER — With 23 seconds left and his Morehead State team trailing Louisville 61-59, guard Demonte Harper had a little face-to-face with Coach Donnie Tyndall during a timeout.
"Coach said, 'I dreamt about this last night, this exact position we would be in during this situation,' " Harper said. "He told me, 'I know exactly where I'm going to. I'm going to put it right in your hands, Demonte. I don't want you to drive it to the hole; I want you to pull up and win the game off a three-pointer.' I said, 'Coach, I'm going to hit the shot.' "
Harper was true to his word. The 6-foot-4 senior from Nashville stepped up with 4.2 seconds left and delivered the biggest shot in school history, a 22-foot three-pointer from the top of the key over U of L guard Peyton Siva, that led to the biggest win in school history as the 13th-seeded Eagles shocked the fourth-seeded Cardinals 62-61 in an NCAA Tournament Southwest Regional game in the Pepsi Center.
"I think it's, without question, the biggest win in the history of our program," Tyndall said. "Coach (Wayne) Martin, who is the best coach to ever coach at Morehead State, had some big wins during his time. I think to win a first-round game against an in-state power, to be able to knock them off, I don't think it's ever been bigger than that in the history of our school."
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It was a bitter ending to a better-than-expected season for Louisville, which was picked to finish eighth in the Big East but went 25-10 overall and 12-6 in the league en route to a third-place finish.
"This is as tough a loss as I've had in coaching, and I've been coaching a long time; after tonight, maybe too long," Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said. "I feel terrible for our guys because they were just a wonderful group to coach."
The fashion in which the Eagles pulled off the upset made it even sweeter for them. Louisville looked tight and flat early, missing several layups and free throws, and Morehead jumped all over the Cards. The Eagles scored the game's first 10 points and led 15-2 eight minutes in. But Louisville regained its composure and slowly inched its way back, and the teams went into halftime tied at 33.
In Louisville's 74-54 first-round win over Morehead two years ago, the Eagles trailed by two at halftime before wearing down in the second half. Thursday's game seemed headed down a similar path as three-pointers by Kyle Kuric and Preston Knowles put U of L ahead 44-37 with 14:44 remaining. Then a Chris Smith three gave Louisville its biggest lead of the game at 47-39 with 11:52 left.
But this time, instead of folding, the Eagles stood firm. With Knowles, Louisville's leading scorer, on the bench for the final eight minutes after spraining his left foot, Morehead reclaimed the lead at 49-48 on a pair of foul shots by Terrance Hill at 7:49. After a Smith layup put Louisville back in front, Hill drilled a three-pointer for a 52-50 Morehead lead with 7:01 remaining.
Hill, a 6-foot-1 junior averaging 10.4 points, scored a game-high 23, making five of six three-pointers.
Tyndall said he was not surprised to see his team have an answer for each Louisville rally.
"When you reflect back on that game (two years ago), first and foremost, Louisville was better," Tyndall said. "They were the No. 1 overall seed in America. They were just better. Their team is still very, very good, don't get me wrong. But now our team is better, led by Demonte and Kenneth (Faried) who are seniors. They're stronger, more confident, played in big games. ...
"I thought, even though we got down eight, our guys kept coming to the huddle saying, 'We're going to win this game, man; keep grinding, keep grinding.' That was their mind-set."
Faried had trouble finishing around the basket and shot 4-for-17, but he showed why he's the leading rebounder in college basketball history.
After Hill missed two free throws with U of L leading 49-48, Faried tapped the loose ball back to Hill, who was fouled and then hit both foul shots.
And with Morehead clinging to a 54-52 lead, Faried grabbed a miss by Hill and passed to Lamont Austin, who found Hill for another three-pointer that made it a five-point game (57-52) at 5:24. Faried pulled down 17 boards as the Eagles dominated the glass 41-29.
Pitino also lamented the Cardinals' 7-for-16 performance from the free-throw line. After Morehead went up five, Louisville responded with a 9-0 run.
An Elisha Justice three-pointer at 2:13 put the Cards back in front 59-57, and then Siva dished to Terrence Jennings for a dunk that made it a 61-57 game with 1:20 left.
After Faried hit two free throws to bring Morehead to within two (61-59), Justice was fouled with 30 seconds left. But the Shelby Valley graduate missed the front end of the one-and-one, setting up Harper's heroics.
"We lost some games this year because of two main reasons," Pitino said. "One is rebounding, because we play our hearts out. And to play that hard and to give up that second shot, especially on the foul line, hurts. The second thing was free-throw shooting. We could have iced it at the foul line, certainly, but we didn't. It's a good win for Morehead. You have to give them all the credit."