Louisville's comeback over UNC shows blueprint begins with Harrell
J.P. Tokoto's layup just over two minutes into the second half at Louisville wasn't just another routine basket -- it was an exclamation point. Another shove back down to the floor for a Cardinals team struggling to find it way against a superior North Carolina one. Rick Pitino called timeout, gathered Louisville around him in an attempt to find an answer, because it wasn't coming on the scoreboard.
That was worse. It blared the ugly truth: North Carolina 43, Louisville 25.
An 18-point deficit. Louisville couldn't defend the offensive glass, the Cardinals guard tandem of Terry Rozier and Chris Jones couldn't find an uncontested shot and Carolina's Marcus Paige was beginning to heat up.
So how in the world did this turn into a 78-68 Louisville win in overtime?
The Cardinals remembered they had the one thing Carolina didn't: Montrezl Harrell.
The raw numbers on the box score are impressive in their own right: 22 points, 15 rebounds, shooting 50 percent from the floor. But Harrell's worth in one of the biggest comeback wins in the ACC this season was measured in the paint. After falling behind by 18 points, Louisville finally began to move Harrell closer to the basket, creating more opportunities to get second-chance shots.
In the first half, he had eight points and five rebounds, while Louisville trailed by 10.
Second half and overtime? Fourteen points and 10 boards, but the impact was felt around the floor as the Cardinals grabbed 10 offensive rebounds after halftime. That created chances all over the place for Rozier (22 points) and Jones (17 points), who were previously finding little against the Tar Heel defense.
But this game was a reminder that Harrell possesses the type of freak athletic ability and size that few teams can counter.
Yes, the highlight reels will show the thunderous one-handed, above-the-head, alley-oop that Harrell threw down in the midst of the second half comeback. The more impressive play though, might have been his and-one layup with 8:20 to play. Harrell was at the top of the key, recognized that the Tar Heels were positioning for a double-team in anticipation of the Louisville forward going left.
Instead he went right, spun around two Tar Heels for the basket while drawing a third foul on Carolina's Kennedy Meeks.
This is a formula that Louisville has struggled with at times this season. Does it let Harrell dictate the tempo of play or allow the duo of Jones and Rozier to?
Harrell's 22 points were the most since the opening game of ACC play on Jan. 4, a nine-point win at Wake Forest, and only the second time since Dec. 9 that he's scored more than 20 in a game. Over Louisville's previous six games before Saturday, Harrell had been shooting over 50 percent (50.9, to be exact), but had only attempted 53 shots. There were games of six points (Clemson), nine points (at North Carolina), 10 points (Duke) and 11 points (Virginia Tech).
The comeback win against North Carolina at home though, proved just how successful the blueprint can be when Harrell is the first option.
Once Harrell began getting the Cardinals offense moving out of its rut, Rozier and Jones were able to find opportunities. But the shot selection by that duo still leaves Louisville vulnerable. Even though the two guards combined for 39 points, they did it on 10-of-34 shooting with nine of those points coming in overtime, after the game had clearly swung in Louisville's favor.
Whether this work night in and night out is what Louisville must figure out next.
The coming week will bring two stern road tests, Miami on Tuesday and then Virginia next Saturday, that will show if Rick Pitino's team figured out how to balance Harrell, along with the two guards. But this may put it into clearer perspective: Wayne Blackshear, the Cardinals' fourth-leading scorer, didn't record his first basket until 2:09 left in overtime.
Being down 18 points and coming back to win by 10, certainly put an extra bounce in Louisville's step.
Figuring out how to properly get Montrezl Harrell working within this offense?
That might be the bigger victory.