LAS VEGAS — Before Kentucky reserve Josh Harrellson took on West Virginia Saturday, he challenged himself.
"I kind of got in my head before the game that I was going to come out and I was going to be the best player on the floor," he said after UK's 54-43 victory.
Harrellson probably wasn't the best player on the court, but he was one of the most productive. He scored 12 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, most timely contributions in a game where foul trouble limited All-American candidate Patrick Patterson to eight first-half minutes.
"It's huge," UK Coach Billy Gillispie said of Harrellson's play, which also compensated for Perry Stevenson's invisible-man impersonation (zero rebounds in 24 minutes).
The night before, Gillispie noted how Kentucky needs to give leading scorer Jodie Meeks more help.
Gillispie has made no secret that Harrellson, a late-bloomer who didn't play organized basketball until the ninth grade, had to believe in himself.
"No, he wasn't the best player on the floor, but I like his approach," Gillispie said. "That will (determine) how good he'll be as a player. He's got to think he's really good. Not think, but know he belongs, not hope."
Somehow, Harrellson said he changed his mind-set for this game.
"Lately, I've been struggling," he said. "I've been kind of soft and not finishing plays. And I just knew I was going to come out and be the biggest man out there. I just put my head to it and I did it."
Kentucky came to Las Vegas as a two-time loser in search of a fresh start. The Cats cashed in with hard-fought victories over Kansas State and West Virginia.
Patterson called the victories "a huge momentum booster" for UK.
Gillispie saluted WVU, which suffered its first loss. The Mountaineers' defense took apart Iowa on Friday and had Kentucky on the ropes. With less than 17 minutes left, UK had made only five of 19 shots and committed 15 turnovers.
"The main thing is we really had a good team win," Gillispie said, "especially getting off to a bad start and (WVU) having all the momentum."
The UK coach called West Virginia "a very, very, very good team, a physical team that runs its stuff well. They just missed shots."
On that, WVU Coach Bob Huggins agreed. He lamented the season-low 30.6 percent shooting. The Mountaineers came into the game having made 52 percent of their shots.
Leading scorer Alex Ruoff (a 53.3-percent shooting this season, 46.9 percent from three-point range) made three of 13 shots (one of 10 from beyond the arc).
Coming from Huntington, W.Va., Patterson enjoyed beating his home-state school.
"I've always wanted to play against West Virginia," he said. "It's like a huge battle-duel that's been in my head for a long time."
West Virginia recruited Patterson. He considered the Mountaineers, but decided he wanted to go out of state to college.
For the fourth time in six games, Kentucky committed more than 20 turnovers. But Gillispie saw hope in the Cats' 23 turnovers against West Virginia.
"That's still too many turnovers," he said. "But we're starting to think better."
Gillispie stuck a playful needle into Jodie Meeks as the UK player exited a post-game interview area Saturday.
"Jodie," the UK coach said. "You set the tournament record for turnovers."
When a smiling Meeks defended himself, Gillispie said, "Hey, I'm being honest. It's not even close. You shattered the record."
Actually, it was pretty close. Meeks committed 14 turnovers in the two games here.
No one had more, but Iowa guard Jeff Peterson had 12 (five against Kansas State and seven against West Virginia). Kansas State center Darren Kent had 11 (eight against UK and three against Iowa).
Besides Meeks, the next highest turnover total for UK was eight, by Stevenson and Michael Porter.
But here's a startling stat: Through six games, Meeks has eight assists and 31 turnovers.
Contributing to that rancid ratio is Meeks' duty to drive into traffic and draw fouls. Defenders have stripped him of the ball in tight quarters.