Josh Harrellson sat at the end of the Kentucky bench late in Saturday's second half as trainers worked furiously to stop the flow of blood from the cut above his left eye. "Just put a headband on me," Harrellson remembered saying to a trainer. "I need to get back out there."
The Wildcats had a slim lead, but a few bad possessions or a missed rebound that the 6-foot-10, 275-pound Harrellson could have corralled might have swung the pendulum back in West Virginia's favor. Harrellson had to get back out there. He'd waited too long to reach this point, and he didn't want his college career to end Saturday.
Harrellson may have eaten McDonald's as a student at St. Charles (Mo.) High, but unlike the trio of freshmen he starts alongside, he wasn't a McDonald's All-American. He signed with Western Illinois out of high school but spent his freshman season at an Illinois junior college. He was banished to a bathroom stall at halftime of a game at Vanderbilt during his first season at Kentucky in 2009. That same night, he rode from Nashville to Lexington, Ky., in an equipment truck because he wasn't allowed to travel with the team. This past October, after he complained on Twitter that Kentucky coach John Calipari hadn't praised him in practice, Harrellson was turned over for a month to the tender mercilessness of Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne. "There was no routine," Harrellson said. "It was whatever coach Payne wanted to do. His last name, that's his thing. He took it to me."
All that turned Harrellson into the player who has emerged as Kentucky's steadiest in the tournament. Thursday, he scored 15 and grabbed 10 rebounds in a narrow win against Princeton. Saturday, Harrellson scored 15 and grabbed eight rebounds -- and collected four stitches thanks to an inadvertent elbow from Mountaineer Casey Mitchell -- in a 71-63 win against West Virginia that avenged last year's Elite Eight loss and sent the fourth-seeded Wildcats to the Sweet 16, where they'll face either top-seeded Ohio State or No. 8 seed George Mason.
Freshman Brandon Knight hit the game-winner Thursday against Princeton after a horrible shooting day and bounced back with 30 points to lead the Wildcats on Saturday, but Harrellson made what Calipari called "the play of the game."
The possession began when Harrellson ripped a missed Mitchell shot away from two West Virginia players. With the score tied at 55, the Wildcats set up their offense. Knight pulled the trigger on a three-pointer. It clanged off the rim, but Harrellson snatched the rebound. Harrellson tried a putback. He missed. He got that rebound, too. He tried another putback. Another miss, and another offensive board for Harrellson. On his third try, Harrellson found the net. The score gave Kentucky a lead it would never relinquish. "I wasn't going to give up on it," Harrellson said. "I knew the team needed a bucket at that time."
Harrellson probably wouldn't be playing significant minutes if the NCAA hadn't ruled Turkish import Enes Kanter permanently ineligible over his brief stint with a professional team. But Harrellson has gone from a stopgap role player to a critical cog in the Kentucky basketball machine. He fights for every loose ball, but -- that key possession Saturday notwithstanding -- he also has great touch around the basket. Saturday, Knight lobbed the ball to Harrellson on several occasions for baskets Harrellson made look easy.
Before this season, Harrellson was most famous in Lexington for his collection of jean shorts. His embrace of the fashion faux pas earned him the nickname "Jorts." Saturday, as they waited to watch their team face UCLA in the next game, Florida fans -- collegiate America's
Even himself. Harrellson received significant Big 12 and Big Ten recruiting interest after his freshman season at Southwest Illinois College, where he went after realizing he probably could aim higher than Western Illinois. But during his first year at Kentucky, it seemed he'd never become a contributor. During a loss at Vanderbilt in 2009, then-Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie got so fed up with Harrellson that he booted him from the locker room and into the bathroom. Gillispie also made Harrellson travel the 215-mile drive home in an equipment truck. Harrellson just tried to sleep off the indignity, and he never considered quitting. "I love the sport too much to let something like that push me aside," said Harrellson, who said he has maintained a good relationship with Gillispie. "Every coach has a different way of coaching. ... He just tried to teach me to come out and play tough. He just tried to teach me a different way than I'm used to learning."
Harrellson rode the bench most of last year, but he didn't mind because the Wildcats just kept winning. This season, when it appeared he would play an important role on the team, he went looking for praise on Twitter after a particularly strong practice. "Just amazing to me I can't get a good job or way to go," Harrellson wrote on a Twitter feed that was shut down soon after.
Calipari took to his own Twitter account to explain why Harrellson would be disciplined. "I'm looking for consistency in practice, scrimmages & games," Calipari tweeted. "He won't be tweeting until he's responsible enough to handle success & failure."
Calipari also told Payne to do his worst, and Payne followed orders. Harrellson couldn't even name all the drills Payne inflicted upon him. He may have blocked out some. But Harrellson, determined to succeed, fought through every assignment Payne gave him. "If I was completing the running assignments easily, he just made it worse for me," Harrellson said. "But I'm happy for everything he did. It made me the player I am today."
Harrellson said he's in "probably the best shape ever in my life," and it showed Saturday. While everyone else sucked air late in the game, Harrellson kept grabbing rebounds to make a shot he knew his team needed. In the process, Harrellson prolonged a college career that didn't take off until it was almost over.
"Basketball isn't about taking all the great talents. It's about making players better. That's what [Calipari] did with me," Harrellson said. "I don't have all the talent in the world. But I've got hard work and determination. That's what he brought out in me."