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Harrellson, nation's most improved player, the difference in rivalry win

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Harrellson_web.jpgRaise your hand if you predicted one year ago from today that Josh Harrellson would be the difference in this year's Dream Game?

How about six months ago? Last month? Yesterday?

The nation's most improved player, who didn't even sniff the floor in last year's youth-driven Kentucky win, was the veteran presence and difference in UK's 78-63 victory over Louisville on Friday.

Harrellson posted a career-high 23 points and 14 rebounds - just the fourth double-double of his career - to lead another young Kentucky team over Louisville in front a KFC Yum! Center record crowd of 22,803. Harrellson's career afternoon provided Kentucky with its second straight win and fifth in the last seven meetings with the Cardinals.

Not even Harrellson could have drawn up what he did in the state's annual showdown.

"I would have never expected this," Harrellson said. "If you would have asked me yesterday if I would have the best night of my life, I would have been like, 'Yeah, right.' "

Fast forward 24 hours later to the 1:29 minute mark. As Big Blue fans behind the Kentucky bench stood to their feet, UK coach John Calipari took Harrellson out of the game one final time and gave him the bear hug of his life.

Calipari was lost for words during the embrace, Harrellson said, but he's not lost on what Harrellson has done for his coaching career.

"He's taught me a great lesson," Calipari said. "What we coaches like to do is just work with the good guys. The guys that are struggling, sometimes you just push them aside. What he has shown me is every kid deserves everything we have to help him get better. ... I'm just proud of him. He had 23 points and 14 rebounds?! Oh my gosh. Wow. It's an emotional rush seeing that."

This game was just another representation for the season Harrellson is having. In a game that hyped youth vs. experience, Calipari vs. Rick Pitino and a ranked team vs. a ranked team, it was the-often-overlooked-but-stunningly-reliable Harrellson that stole the game's headlines.

The beneficiary of Terrence Jones double teams, Harrellson took advantage of key rolls and second-chance points. Jones, chastised by his head coach for catching the ball too far from the low post, continually caught the defense off guard with timely looks to Harrellson in the paint.

"I knew the double team was coming, so I thought with me being farther away, I thought the double team would come further to me and it would make it an easier pass," said Jones, who, laughingly, admitted he did not suggest that to Calipari.

Fitting of Harrellson's role and rise, Jones said Harrellson isn't even the first option out of the double-team read. And yet, nearly every time Jones was double teamed, he dumped it down to Harrellson (three of Jones' career-high five assists were to Harrellson).

"He deserved it," Jones said. "He's been working hard."

The work, the conditioning, and to a point, the Twitter controversy a couple of months ago, are what Calipari said saved Harrellson's career. Since publicly tweeting some negative comments directed at his head coach, Harrellson has been conditioning 30 minutes before every practice.

With each passing game, the work is paying off.

"When I first started, I just wanted to quit," Harrellson said. "I hated it and I looked at is as punishment. But then I looked at it as it's making me better because each game I got progressively better."

How much of a factor the conditioning really was Friday, we may never know, but Harrellson just looks like a completely different player right now. Although Calipari took part of the blame for never giving Harrellson a chance, his calm low post moves, relentless rebounding and baseline-to-baseline stamina are facets of his game he didn't used to possess.

Harrellson is playing so well and with so much confidence that he even drained a 3-pointer to put Kentucky up 44-26. After swallowing another rebound on the defensive end, Harrellson hustled down the court and found the ball in his hands at the top of the key.

He hesitated for just a moment, but after a quick thought, Harrellson let it fly and sunk it. That was the ball game.

"I was feeling it," said Harrellson, who finished 10-of-12 from the floor. "I got a rebound at the other end. I hit a jump shot before and I was wide open, so I was like, 'Well, I'm going to knock down this one too so you better come guard me.' "

Louisville made a run behind nine straight made shots and the streaky play of guard Preston Knowles, but Brandon Knight's 25 points and late surge by Jones held off the rally.

Harrellson's back-to-back backdoor alley-oops on feeds from Knight late in the game sealed the final outcome.

"We've got great respect for him," Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said. "We obviously wanted to take away Jones in the low post. We did a good job. We just didn't rotate to Harrellson in the low post."

Louisville had no answer for him, and quite honestly, nobody has of late. The nation's most improved player just keeps getting better and better. And he's suddenly making Kentucky a legit contender.

"He's a totally different player," Knight said.

Who would have ever guessed it?

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Russell, Jabbar, Walton, O'neal, Ewing . . . . . HARRELLSON !!!

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