LOUISVILLE — When it came to first impressions, Josh Harrellson did not make a strong one with Kentucky teammate Terrence Jones. The freshman heard the coaches complain in the summer about Harrellson's unwillingness to work hard or even pay attention.
From what he saw firsthand, Jones rolled his eyes at the thought of a goofball like Harrellson as starting center.
"Oh, man," he said of that first impression. "I hope Enes can play."
The NCAA still has not — and may never — "free" Enes Kanter from permanent ineligibility. But Harrellson's play in Kentucky's 78-63 victory at Louisville on Friday made that possibility seem less of a death sentence on this season.
Helped immeasurably by Louisville's defensive attention on Jones, Harrellson scored a career-high 23 points, equaled a career high of 14 rebounds and even made his first three-pointer in more than a year (Dec. 21, 2009 in the 2,000th-victory celebration against Drexel).
With victory secure, Harrellson left the game late in the second half and received a bear hug from UK Coach John Calipari.
"At first, he didn't say anything," Harrellson said when asked what Calipari had to say. "He looked at me like, 'Did you really do that?' "
Then as Harrellson recalled, Calipari said, "Good job, kid."
In a game demanding blue-collar contributions, Kentucky's humble tradesman excelled.
Kentucky (11-2) won in large part because it out-scrapped Louisville 34-25 on the boards and out-executed the Cardinals.
"It doesn't take a smart answer to figure out they were the better basketball team, by far," U of L Coach Rick Pitino said. "Better on the glass. They were better executing."
Harrellson played a big part on both ends of the floor.
Offensively, he took advantage of Louisville's concern with Jones, UK's leading scorer (18.2 ppg) and rebounder (9.3 rpg).
"We have great respect for him," Pitino said of Harrellson. "We, obviously, want to take away Jones in the post. We did a good job. We just didn't rotate to Harrellson."
Time and again, Jones found Harrellson in position for layups and dunks.
The Cats had worked all week on playing off Louisville double teams of Jones, Harrellson said. "Sealing the weak-side guy and being available and finding the open spot. ...
"They kept doubling, and I kept making myself available to him," Harrellson said. "He kept feeding me the ball, and I kept finishing."
Jones was reluctant to take credit for the scoring by Harrellson, whose previous career-high was 15.
"I didn't help him get 14 rebounds," Jones noted.
Louisville guard Chris Smith acknowledged the out-of-nowhere quality to Harrellson's productive game.
"I wouldn't say he caught us by surprise because (Pitino) told us he was a good player," Smith said. "But maybe we did underestimate him a little bit. He went out there and did his job."
Harrellson also contributed to a UK defense that made Louisville scrap for almost every point. Except for a second-half flurry by Preston Knowles, the Cardinals seemed out of sync all afternoon.
Knowles scored 16 of his 22 points in the second half. That only kept the final score respectable as Louisville fell to 11-2.
The Cats trailed early. And when Doron Lamb went to the bench with his second foul at the 14:33 mark, it appeared it might be a long afternoon for UK.
Darius Miller helped turn the game in UK's favor. His post-up basket over Kyle Kuric gave Kentucky its first lead, 15-14, with 11:22 left in the first half. That also marked his first points against Louisville in
three career games.
Harrellson's three-pointer from the top of the key — his first three-point attempt of the season — put Kentucky ahead 44-26.
With Knowles scoring 13 points in a span of less than five minutes, Louisville got as close as 54-45. Almost 10 minutes remained.
Jones and Harrellson saw to it that Louisville got no closer. The pair collaborated on eight straight points to push Kentucky to a 69-52 lead inside the final five minutes.
Afterward, Calipari reflected on the ugly swan that developed into a beautifully productive player.
"He taught me a great lesson," Calipari said of Harrellson. "What we coaches like to do is just work with the good guys. The guys that are struggling, sometimes you push aside.
"What he showed me is, every kid deserves everything we have to help them get better."
Of course, Harrellson got the extra attention after he tweeted about his frustration with Calipari's lack of encouragement. That earned Harrellson a steady diet of extra running, which, ironically, made him better conditioned and better able to perform.
According to Calipari, Harrellson saw his performance against U of L as a chance to resume tweeting. "Are you kidding me?!" a smiling UK coach said of his answer.
This came as news to Harrellson.
"He might have heard me say something," he said of Calipari. "I didn't ask him face to face."
After a pause, Harrellson added, "I might now."