Unlikely hero closes out Freedom Hall
Kuric comes off the bench to score 22 second-half points as Louisville beats No. 1 Cuse
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Can a building really have magic?
If you saw what transpired during Louisville's 823rd and final game in Freedom Hall, you believe. What, other than a mystical vibe emanating from this 54-year-old basketball shrine, could explain the performance Saturday by Kyle Kuric?
You're forgiven for asking "Kyle Who?" Until the second half of the Cardinals' vital game against No. 1 Syracuse, Kuric was small type on opposing scouting reports: a 6-foot-4 sophomore from Evansville, Ind., averaging 13.4 minutes and 3.5 points per game. Last time he played in this gym, he recorded a 7 trillion against Georgetown: seven minutes played, all zeroes on the stat line.
Among all the players who have worn a Louisville uniform in Freedom Hall -- and dozens of the greats were in attendance Saturday -- Kuric easily ranked among the more obscure.
"I think everyone is going to remember the game that closed Freedom Hall for him," UL coach Rick Pitino said.
That's because Kuric channeled Darrell Griffith and exploded like no college bench jockey I've ever seen in a pressure situation with sky-high stakes.
With 16:11 left in the game and Louisville down 40-37, Pitino sent Kuric into the game at small forward in place of a cramping Reggie Delk. Nobody at that moment suspected that the Freedom Hall fates had selected Kuric to save the season. Nobody knew the kid was about to run, jump and shoot himself into Louisville lore.
Least of all his coach.
"I told Kyle, 'You go in there and dominate the game,'" Pitino deadpanned. "I love the players when they listen. He put on a great performance that he'll remember the rest of his life."
By the time the final horn sounded on a 78-68 Louisville triumph, King for a Day Kyle had scored a career-high 22 points. He had swished four zone-fracturing 3-point shots. He had soared for four dunks on fast breaks and alley-oops. He had motivated 1980s heroes like Pervis Ellison, Rodney McCray and Wiley Brown first to nod, then to smile, then to rise and applaud his play.
"It started with that first dunk, getting out on the break," Kuric said. "Then I knocked down a shot, and it kept going from there."
In a mind-boggling span of 13 minutes and 41 seconds, Kuric scored all 22 of his points. In that same span, the top-ranked team in the country scored 22. His ability to single-handedly play the Orange to a standstill allowed the Cardinals to surge from three down and on the bubble to 13 ahead and in the NCAA field of 65.
"The seniors have never gone to the NIT," Pitino said in addressing the crowd when the game was over. "And now they never will."
That's thanks to Kuric, who established himself as at least an intern among the school's fabled Doctors of Dunk while helping Louisville sweep the Orange. They're the only two signature wins on the Cards' résumé, but nobody has two better. (Yes, Tennessee beat both Kansas and Kentucky, but they were both at home. Louisville has squeezed the Orange both here and in the Carrier Dome, accounting for 67 percent of their loss total.)
Afterward, when the former players were invited onto the floor for Senior Day festivities, many of them made their way to Kuric to congratulate him.
Someone asked Kuric if they knew who he was.
"They do now," he responded.
That's about as close as you'll get to swagger from the kid. He came to Louisville with a vertical leap measured at more than three feet, and his teammates swear Kuric has gone on similar dunking-and-shooting sprees many times during practice. ("Kyle can go," said senior guard Jerry Smith.) But he also has a tendency to shrink from the limelight.
"He's just so shy," Pitino said. "I've never met a person like him. Even when he yells, it's a shy yell."
Kuric left the yelling to the record crowd of 20,135. After he flushed an alley-oop from Preston Knowles with 2:44 left for a 14-point Louisville lead, the building erupted. It was the loudest I've heard it in the Hall in more than two decades of covering games here.
They came for the history of the day, but they roared for the urgency of the moment. Amid all the nostalgia for the arena and the emotion of the Senior Day tributes, the bottom-line reality was that Louisville needed this win to be sure it would get into the NCAAs.
"I felt pressure for the first time as a coach because there were so many festivities and the guys coming back, and the NCAA berth being on the line against the No. 1 team in the country and the closing of Freedom Hall," Pitino said. "I got up at about 2 in the morning and said, 'What if we lose?'"
If Louisville had lost, it would have slouched into New York for the Big East tournament with a burden on its back. A first-game defeat there would have been its third straight, not exactly the picture of health in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee. And after nonconference losses to Western Carolina and Charlotte in this very building, nothing was guaranteed for this team.
Early in the second half, the anxiety remained for every red-clad fan in Freedom Hall. Then Pitino stuck Kuric in the game and watched him go berserk.
"He's developing his confidence and this is going to help immensely," Pitino said. "I'm really, really happy for the things he did today. He's a great kid. This is going to be a great step in his life."
Ninety minutes after the game ended, Kuric was ready to take his last steps out of Freedom Hall. He was stopped at the rear exit by Zack Hardin, who has been guarding the back door for the past three years and has worked security all over the arena for the past 12.
Hardin chats up the players every time they come and go, win or lose. On this special occasion, he grasped Kuric's hand for a long time, congratulating him on the game of his life.
"Keep working hard," Hardin said.
Kuric thanked him, then stepped into a gaggle of autograph seekers waiting in the late-afternoon sunlight -- a twist of fate nobody had seen coming when the day began. With a memorable magic act, Freedom Hall was finished.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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