Morehead State upsets Louisville, biggest win in program history
DENVER -- Like every kid, Morehead State's Demonte Harper dreamed of counting down the clock with the ball in his hand, ready to take the winning shot.
"Five-four-three-two-one," he said.
Not so fast, Demonte. On Thursday afternoon at the Pepsi Center, Harper had to start counting at 24 seconds. His team trailing four-seed Louisville by two, he stood at midcourt for what felt like forever, 0-for-5 from three-point range on the day but fueled by his coach's confidence in him.
And when the clock finally hit six seconds, Harper stepped up and calmly drilled a three-pointer to give the Eagles the lead. Never a thought to try to tie the game and get another possession.
"It's the NCAA tournament," said Kenneth Faried. "Go big or go home."
Faried went big on the game's final possession. After Harper's gutsy shot, Faried blocked a last-gasp attempt by Mike Marra.
"All ball, absolutely," said Faried. Even Louisville couldn't argue it was anything but clean.
And the celebration was on. Morehead State not only notched the first big upset of the 2011 tournament, it also won the biggest game in school history.
Louisville and Morehead are about two hours and a million miles apart. Morehead State plays in a different league -- financially, recruiting-wise and literally. Ohio Valley Conference vs. The Mighty Big East. Unheralded state school vs. basketball elite. A guy named Donnie vs. the legend Rick Pitino.
"Without question that's the biggest win in the history of the program," said coach Donnie Tyndall. "To be 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."
The instate series between Morehead State and Louisville dates back 81 seasons, and the Cardinals held a 31-11 advantage before Thursday's game. The last time Morehead State beat Louisville was 1956.
Three of the past four times the Eagles made it to the NCAA tournament, the Cardinals were waiting to send them back home to Kentucky: in 1961, 1984 and 2009, when Louisville was a loaded No. 1 seed and ousted Morehead State, which had won a play-in game.
"My sophomore year, they had three draft picks -- two lottery picks," Faried said. "That was a big team."
This year, Faried is projected to be a first-round pick. The nation's leading rebounder lived up to his reputation as an athletic force who only needs some polishing offensively. He had 17 rebounds and 12 points. His rebound off a missed Louisville free-throw put Morehead State in position to win the game.
"All coaches use the cliché that, with rebounders, every shot is a pass to you," Pitino said. "He's the only one I've seen since Dennis Rodman that truly makes that statement true. He considers every shot."
Pitino's team, hampered by injuries all year, was ice cold and sloppy early, falling behind 15-2. After the Cardinals caught back up, they seemed to be gaining control. But midway through the second half, senior guard Preston Knowles sprained his foot and didn't return.
Pitino struggled to explain what he called "as tough a loss as I've had in coaching." He cited emotions, altitude and height, saying his team was just too small. It was the second consecutive first-round exit for the Cardinals, who lost to Cal a year ago.
Morehead State, meanwhile, played with a swagger that might be surprising considering its recent NCAA record. The Eagles never got rattled when they fell behind.
"We have good players," Tyndall said. "We know we have a nice team. We play with confidence and swagger."
Tyndall said Harper thinks he's wide open "when he walks in the gym." And the coach didn't question whether to give Harper the ball, telling Harper during the timeout that he had dreamed the senior would hit a three to win the game.
"I didn't really dream it," Tyndall confessed. "I was up at 2:30 and couldn't get to sleep and was thinking what do we do here ... down by two we're going to go for the win."
They did. The biggest win in school history.
"Let's go party," said the team's radio crew as it packed up and headed out, "like it's 1956."