Commentary

Harrellson stands tall against Sullinger

After early-season struggles, the senior came up big against OSU and its talented star

Updated: March 28, 2011, 7:37 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEWARK, N.J. -- Jared Sullinger took the Prudential Center floor as the potential first pick in the NBA draft, as the living embodiment of everything his Kentucky opponent, Josh Harrellson, only wished he could be.

Sullinger was the lead actor in a game that was supposed to be defined by an ambitious circle of freshmen and their one-and-done aims. He was 19, the star player on a 34-2 Ohio State team, the kid who was going to pull a Carmelo Anthony and win a national title in Year 1 before becoming a pro in Year 2.

But in the end Friday night, the 22-year-old Harrellson was the big man standing at midcourt, pounding his fists against his chest and screaming in liberation. Kentucky freshman guard Brandon Knight had made the big shot with 5.4 seconds to play before Ohio State junior guard William Buford missed a 3-pointer for the win three seconds later. When Buford's shot came off the rim, Harrellson was the most fitting of Wildcats to bat the final, fateful carom toward midcourt, away from Sullinger and toward a regional final matchup with North Carolina.

"I think Harrellson is probably the most underrated player in college basketball," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.

Harrellson had 17 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks, and one game-shaping stop of the wide-bodied Sullinger with a little over a minute to play and Kentucky holding a one-point lead. Sullinger got the ball in the low post, near his own bench, and Harrellson bodied him so forcefully to the baseline that the 6-foot-9 freshman hit the side of the backboard with a shot that landed in his opponent's hands.

"I gave up an offensive rebound right before that and gave up an easy layup," Harrellson said. "I didn't really contest it, so I was going to try to make it up for my teammates. I was trying to be big."

As it turned out, Harrellson was the biggest player in the house. The 6-10 senior brought a WWE intensity to the Sweet 16, lifting the first half over his head and body-slamming it to the court. Kentucky fans could understand his rage.

Harrellson was a high school star (recruited by Ohio State, among many others) who devolved into a washout case in Lexington, an out-of-shape, out-of-luck scrub who was keeping a scholarship warm for someone else.

[+] EnlargeJosh Harrellson
AP Photo/Julio CortezJosh Harrellson has helped lead Kentucky to within one game of the Final Four.

Billy Gillispie, his former coach, had no use for Harrellson, and Calipari shared the sentiment. After Harrellson ripped down 26 rebounds in Kentucky's blue-white scrimmage, and after he felt no approving pat on the back from his coach, Harrellson tweeted, "Just amazing to me I can't get a good job or way to go."

Calipari found the tweet as amusing as the NCAA's decisions to vacate his Final Four appearances with Memphis and UMass. The coach thought about booting Harrellson from the team. "And I went to Mass and I thought better of it," Calipari recalled, "and said, 'You are going to condition for 30 minutes before every practice and then you are going to practice or you can quit.'"

So Calipari made his big man run and run and run his way back into good standing, a form of penance that changed Harrellson's body, his attitude and his game.

Calipari had recruited a Turkish prospect, Enes Kanter, to be his man in the middle, but the NCAA knocked Kanter out of the paint, leaving the lane clear for Harrellson, the center who last year served as a sparring partner for the Wildcats' all-NBA frontcourt of DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton.

So there was Harrellson in the first half against Ohio State, driving hard to the basket, throwing down an alley-oop dunk, even swallowing whole Sullinger's power move under the hoop. Once, as he was heading out of bounds with the ball, Harrellson fired a 90-mph fastball off the chest of a stunned Sullinger while the crowd audibly recoiled as if it had just witnessed a felony.

Harrellson wasn't apologizing for this overcaffeinated act, not when he'd waited four years for his night under the Friday night lights. He would make 6 of 8 field goal attempts in the first half, grab seven rebounds and block two shots, and send his underdog team into the locker room feeling good about the 30-30 halftime score.

The Wildcats felt much better an hour later. Knight rose up over Aaron Craft, delivered the kind of dagger that he used to fell Princeton in the first round, and Ohio State decided against calling timeout to set up the final shot.

The ball went to Buford, who had missed 13 of his 15 shots. He would miss for the 14th time, eliminating the Buckeyes and leaving Matta to call Kentucky "the best team we've played this year."

The Wildcats had toppled an Ohio State team with Woody Hayes toughness, a team hailed as the best in the land. As he crossed the postgame court, Calipari pumped his left fist to the painted blue faces in the crowd.

"The veterans won this game," he said.

Calipari looked and sounded awfully proud of that. Forever identified as a recruiter and caretaker of the one-and-dones, Calipari wanted the world to know that this game belonged to a junior, DeAndre Liggins, and to a senior with a lifetime of scars, Josh Harrellson.

Sullinger finished with 21 points and 16 rebounds, but Harrellson stayed right with him, wouldn't let him dominate the game. "I have been guarding the best guys in the country for the last two years," Harrellson said, "with DeMarcus, with Daniel, Pat, and this year guarding Enes. It gives me an edge guarding Jared Sullinger, one of the best in the nation."

Despite Sullinger's insistence that he will return to Ohio State, Harrellson might have ended the freshman's collegiate career and enhanced his own rising NBA stock. Calipari wouldn't have believed this possible at the start of the season. He wouldn't have believed Harrellson capable of delivering him another crack at the Final Four.

"I have done this a long time," Calipari said, "and I'm not sure if I have ever been this proud of a young man who..." The coach paused.

"He's going to do what he wants to do now," Calipari continued, talking about Harrellson's future in the pros. "But he changed. He did it himself. It's not what I did. We put him on stage, but they have to perform."

Yes, Josh Harrellson performed. It was the biggest upset of the night.

Ian O'Connor

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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