Josh Harrellson ended his season in Rupp the same way he started it, having fun and joking with teammates. As the final second ticked off the clock and UK had secured a 68-66 win in its final home game, Harrellson’s playfulness and emotion collided as he wiped away tears and danced with his teammates.
The senior that had spent three years in the background of talented squads finally got his night in the spotlight as fans had giant pictures of his face, signs supporting him and painted chests spelling out the word “Jorts.” Every basket by Harrellson led to cheering that was exponentially louder than the cheers for teammates.
But the loudest cheers came from Harrelson when he wasn’t on the court. Backup center Eloy Vargas made an aggressive play under the basket in the first half to put up a basket and Harrellson could be seen standing up, yelling and pumping up the crowd, despite the fact his backup would finish the night with more fouls than points. But that’s the nature of Harrrellson — he never craved all the attention, yet over the course of his final season, it came to him anyway.
“Josh fought like heck. What a great thing … Here’s a guy that played 35 minutes last season and now he’s playing 35 a game,” UK head coach John Calipari said.
In the early stages of the season, it appeared UK’s weakness would be facing talented centers after a close road loss to University of North Carolina and center Tyler Zeller. But Harrellson refused to be the weak link on the team, and over time, he found a way to compete with anyone he shared the paint with.
Tuesday night, his focus and passion reached a climax.
“I just wanted to win my last game at Rupp and I was going to do anything it took to win,” Harrellson said. “If its getting a blocked shot, if its getting a loose ball, if its getting a rebound I’m going to do it because I wanted to go out with a bang.”
Early in the game, Harrellson took it to the floor at the arc to drive to the basket and shook a defender before laying it in, giving the Cats a 6-4 lead causing the crowd to erupt for the first of many times Tuesday night. The crowd of 24,275 was one of the rowdiest Rupp had seen this season, thanks in large part to the charisma of the Cats lone senior.
The win also secured Calipari’s second consecutive season without a loss in Rupp Arena, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since the 1950s. It’s the third longest home winning streak in the program’s history, and the second-longest active streak in the NCAA.
With the postseason on the horizon, the Cats can also look forward to the emerging leadership and confidence of Brandon Knight. His team-high 17 points came during crucial stretches that helped the Cats fend of Vanderbilt runs, and his intensity fired up teammates when things got tight.
The win ties UK for second in the SEC East, a position necessary to secure a first-round bye in the SEC tournament. A gridlock with Vandy in the East means UK’s final opportunity to prove they can win on the road is a crucial one as they must do it against rival University of Tennessee. Vanderbilt hosts the No. 14 Florida Gators in their final SEC matchup.
But Tuesday’s win was about Harrellson, and his block with 23 seconds to play to protect a one-point lead showed his senior experience in full-force as the team dug in its heels. He would then break up Vandy’s final chance to tie the game with one second left, and the emotion that followed showed that while he was the same person that had come to UK three years ago, he wasn’t the same player. He refused to be ignored.
Matt is a journalism senior. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KernelMurray.