Watching Reece Gaines put up 13 points, 8 assists, and 2 steals, my eyes literally welled up with tears as I realized he would never again play another regular season game in Freedom Hall wearing that #22 Cardinals jersey. If it weren't for my roommates watching with me, I might have started crying; that was my freshman year in college.
You see, it wasn't until I was 1,000 miles away that I realized just how special that moment really is for these seniors. And for those of us that are lucky enough to passionately follow college basketball - Louisville or Kentucky or otherwise - it's an equally special moment for all of us as well. These are players we've watched learn, grow, and play their hearts out on the court, and then it's time to say goodbye. Even though they don't know us, they continuously say how much we mean to them, and we believe it.
The best they can hope for is to go out on a high note - it's highly unlikely (even when favored) that a team walks away with a championship, the only passageway to immortality in college hoops. I only hope that Kuric's last stand in a UofL jersey at home can be one for the ages.
I don't want to shortchange seniors Jared Swopshire or Chris Smith - whom I have been unsuccessfully yet affectionately referring to as "C5" for two solid years now in an homage/attempt to carry on the tradition of Earl Clark's "E5" nickname (it just fits, damn it) - but this is about Kuric's legacy as a Cardinal wearing the red and black; a legacy that is filled with pleasant surprises, high hopes, unrelenting effort, and team play. The legacy of him becoming one of the most beloved players in recent Cardinal basketball history.
I'm not going to tell you that he's one of the best Cardinals to ever put on a Louisville uniform. He's not. He's not even likely to make it on our list of 1,000 point scorers - he currently sits at 854 points before the game against South Florida. As an unflappable Cardinals fan, however, he has given me and all the other fans a great, memorable run capped off with two signature moments that I will never forget.
In his time, he vaulted from a sparingly heralded recruit with an extremely quiet freshman season to become our go-to guy in tight-game situations. Someone whose timidity on the court was palpable, yet now he's wanting the final shot in his hands, not afraid to miss it; rather, knowing that his shot gives our beloved Cardinals the best chance to win with the game on the line. And sure...we all wish he were more aggressive on the offensive end, but when push comes to shove, we all want the ball in his hands when it matters.
On the surface, Kuric's legacy is another Preston Knowles - and by all means that is a compliment. He and Preston both rose from relative obscurity to become our go-to scorer in their senior seasons. Neither dominating to the point of becoming the topic of conversation 20 years from now for their dominant seasons and teams, but rather humble, team players giving it their all every night. Kuric separates himself from Preston in my personal Hall of Nostalgia for two specific incidents: the final game against Syracuse in Freedom Hall, and his vicious dunk on Notre Dame's Scott Martin.
For those that are reading this and have gotten this far, I don't even need to preface Kuric's coming out party against then #1 Syracuse on Senior night in 2010. But it was more than senior night; it was more than an excellent performance by a sophomore on the rise; it became a celebration of everything everyone wants to remember about Freedom Hall. The high-flying dunks of Denny Crum's teams in the 80s, the three point precision of Pitino's early squads at UofL - Kuric was everything in that game for UofL. His 9-11, 22 point performance in 19 impeccable minutes against Syracuse was the perfect send-off for Freedom Hall. I'm not sure there was a single UofL fan who thought twice about leaving after that - it wasn't only a storybook ending for Freedom Hall, but it was a new beginning for Kyle, and a new reason to be optimistic about the KFC Yum! Center in 2010 and beyond.
So while Kuric's overall career doesn't endear him to dinner table conversation 20 years from now, I assure you that he will always be talked about for the final game at Freedom Hall. Seeing him graduate and play on Senior Night tomorrow is - for me - going to be like turning that last page. Sure, there's another class that played there - they'll graduate next year - but I have no significant memories of them in Freedom Hall.
Kuric's other signature moment was his dunk on Notre Dame's Scott Martin. Admittedly, I'm a diehard fan in his late 20's, so my memory only goes back so far, but when he threw that dunk down, I literally jumped out of my seat on the couch; it was, without question for me, the most unexpectedly violent dunk that I have ever watched in college basketball. Bob Knight tried to ruin it, but even he couldn't. The following highlight is not recommended for Notre Dame fans or members of Scott Martin's family:
Kyle Kuric will be missed.
Like other players, we tell ourselves we'll never forget. But we do forget. Someone else comes along and steals our heart on the basketball court; Kyle's Korner will become someone else's, but we'll always know its origin. However, Kuric in Freedom Hall and his dunk at Notre Dame...those are things I will never forget.