DENVER — On the verge of seeing his unheralded, 13th-seeded Morehead State program turn into something much more impressive, the coach could have called a play for his NBA-bound center or his guard who couldn’t miss.
Instead, he decided to go with a dream.
Executing a play that came to his coach the night before, Morehead State’s Demonte Harper dribbled patiently and watched the clock tick down. Then, he stepped up behind the 3-point line and swished the shot with 4.2 seconds left yesterday for a 62-61 victory over fourth-seeded Louisville and the first big upset of the NCAA Tournament.
“The coach said, ‘Hey, I dreamed about this last night, this exact situation,’ ’’ Harper said. “He said, ‘I know exactly who I’m going to. I’m going to put it right in your hands, Demonte.’ He said, ‘At six seconds, I want you to attack and pull up and hit the shot.’ I hit the shot. It feels unreal right now.’’
After Harper’s basket, the Cardinals (25-10) had a chance to win it, but Morehead State’s best player, center Kenneth Faried, blocked Mike Marra’s attempt from the corner.
And that’s how little-known coach Donnie Tyndall, and not Louisville’s Rick Pitino, found himself on the floor of the
“I think to be a first-round game against an in-state power, to be able to knock them off, I don’t think it’s ever been bigger than that in the history of our school,’’ Tyndall said.
Chris Smith had 17 points for Louisville, which closed the season on its first two-game losing streak. The Cardinals played the end of the game without their leading scorer, Preston Knowles, who needed to be helped off the court after hurting his left ankle with 8:51 left.
“This is as tough a loss as I’ve had in coaching and I’ve been coaching a long time,’’ Pitino said.
The Cardinals did better than most people figured, finishing third in the Big East, then making the final of the conference tournament.
“I feel terrible for our guys because they were just a wonderful group,’’ Pitino said.
After Morehead State (25-9) called timeout for its last possession, trailing by 1 with 23.8 seconds left, Harper seemed an unlikely candidate to take the most important shot in the program’s unspectacular history. He was 2 for 9 from the floor and hadn’t hit any of his five 3-point attempts.
Meanwhile, Morehead State had the big fella, Faried, not to mention Terrance Hill, who had kept his team in the game by going 5 for 6 from 3-point range.
The Eagles, however, didn’t do anything by the book in this one.
If they were going to win, it was supposed to be on the shoulders of Faried, the all-time rebounding leader in Division 1. Faried pulled down 17 rebounds but had a terrible day from the field — 4 for 17 for 12 points — and wasn’t the biggest factor in this game.
He’ll get another chance, though. He can thank Harper — whose only shot of the second half gave him a total of 8 points — and Hill, who scored a career-high 23, including 12 during a 16-4 run that turned a 7-point deficit into a 57-52 lead with 5:24 left.
Trailing 57-52, Louisville answered with the next 9 points and the upset chances looked all but over with 1:14 left. But the Eagles worked the ball to Faried and he converted two free throws after a foul to pull within 61-59. Then, Morehead State fouled Elisha Justice, who missed the front end of a 1 and 1 to close his team’s 7-for-16 day from the free throw line.
Faried pulled down the rebound, and Tyndall set up the game-winning play that would make little Morehead State a big-time winner.