STORRS, Conn. -- After 677 career wins and two national titles, Louisville coach Rick Pitino is not a man accustomed to ceding control of a timeout. But Saturday night, just before the biggest shot of the biggest win of Louisville’s season, he passed the figurative whiteboard to Montrezl Harrell.
It was the 18:40 mark of the second half, and UConn guard Shabazz Napier had just hit a long 3-pointer to tie the game 34-34 -- the first tie since the opening minutes of the first half. Gampel Pavilion was roaring. Pitino called a timeout. He began to draw up a play -- some way the Cardinals could get an easy bucket, maybe knock some of the steam out of frenzied Gampel Pavilion -- which is when Harrell spoke up.
“It was a back-door play off our quick action,” Pitino said. “And actually Montrezl made the call. He said, ‘I think I can get Luke [Hancock] on the back door.’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
After the timeout, Harrell set a backscreen on Napier, Hancock’s defender, who found himself trailing his man by a foot when Stephan Van Treese laid two more screens on the opposite wing. The third gave Hancock the space he needed, and his 3 kick-started the 11-0 run that broke Louisville’s 76-64 win open.
Pitino’s credit-where-due recounting of that timeout was the most surprising of Harrell’s contributions Saturday night, but it was hardly the most important. Harrell also had 13 rebounds, three blocks, 39 minutes on the floor, affected a number of shots without fouling -- and, last but not least, had 18 points on just 10 shots.
It was undoubtedly the best game of Harrell’s career, and there’s no coincidence that it came in the first truly impressive win of Louisville’s season. If the Cardinals become a national title contender in the wake of forward Chane Behanan's dismissal in early January, it will be because Harrell emerges as a star.
He’s not far off as it is. Saturday’s performance -- which buoyed the Cardinals in an otherwise sloppy first half -- showcased a host of skills Harrell has been gradually unveiling in recent weeks: strength around the rim, touch from range, angular savvy on the defensive end, and a rebounding safety net on both ends of the floor. Louisville grabbed 78.4 percent of available defensive rebounds Saturday night, 10 of which went to Harrell.
According to ESPN Stats and Info, Pitino’s team attempted 34 of its 57 shots inside the paint. Twelve of Harrell’s 18 points came in the lane, including 10 of his first-half 15. The Huskies, for all their speed on the wing, had no answer. After Hancock’s shot and the 11-0 run -- right around the time UConn coach Kevin Ollie was thrown out of the game via a pair of questionable technical fouls -- the interior mismatch had essentially decided the game.
Harrell’s breakout is the culmination of months spent drilling footwork and flexibility. The result is a player with an increasing array of over-the-shoulder post moves, one more comfortable catching the ball on the block and reading the defense, one who doesn’t need the perfect pass or an offensive rebound to be effective around the rim.
“What he’s needed to work on is his footwork in the low post,” Pitino said. “The jump shot is fine, but if he’s going to make it at the next level, that’s what [the NBA] wants to see. They saw a lot of it tonight.”
In the past, Pitino has often described Harrell as “too erect.” It’s an affliction many highly touted post players suffer from early in their college careers: In high school, merely being taller than everyone on the court is usually more than enough. Bending your knees and battling for position is often beside the point.
Harrell played an important role off the bench in the Cardinals’ national title run as a freshman, but was never a featured player because he never needed to be. Now, with Behanan booted from the program and Gorgui Dieng in the NBA, the Cardinals can’t win without him. And so Harrell has begun to listen to the singular piece of instruction his coach is constantly begging him to heed. He’s bending his knees.
“It really is just a little thing like that,” Harrell said. “Stay down, bending my knees, being ready to make a move, making sure I’m ready to go.”
“You saw him do a lot of that stuff in the summer and in the fall,” guard Russ Smith said. “He would hit that jumper, that little hook shot. But it’s hard to bring what you’re doing in the gym into the game. I recently had this dribble move-bounce pass thing I was working on in the gym and I tried to do it in a game and it went out of bounds. It just takes time to work that stuff in.”
Whatever Harrell is working, he’s doing so at the perfect time. Louisville’s loss to Memphis Jan. 9 was just the latest disappointing result for a defending national champion whose best resume win prior to Saturday was either a 31-point home victory over Southern Miss or last week’s 71-63 win over SMU. While the Cardinals weren’t in danger of missing the 2014 NCAA tournament, getting into mid-January without a tentpole victory wasn’t part of the plan, either.
Now, after holding off UConn in its own building -- the same UConn that won at Memphis earlier this week -- the Cardinals might finally be getting the kind of interior play they need to pair with a skilled and versatile backcourt.
“Every time we rebound the basketball and outrebound our opponent we win like 95 percent of our games,” Pitino said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t outrebounded a whole lot of opponents.
“But when we have this kind of rebounding and play from Montrezl Harrell, who the last three weeks has really improved his post game … who’s worked very hard on his footwork. And he deserves a massive amount of credit for working that hard.”
And a little credit for a play-call, too. Don’t expect to see Harrell with the whiteboard in his hand anytime soon. But if he can stay on the floor, knees bent all the while, Louisville’s post-Behanan prospectus might not be so downcast after all.