The following column appears in this week's issue of The Voice-Tribune
Louisville basketball's friendship with the slam dunk might be the longest tenured and most harmonious relationship this side of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. The association is rightfully credited with helping kick-start UofL's rise to national prominence, making the program one of the sport's most-discussed and helping Denny Crum carry the Cards into an era of unprecedented success.
The legacy started by Darrell Griffith and the Doctors of Dunk has endured through guys like Pervis Ellison, LaBradford Smith, Alvin Sims, and now Montrezl Harrell. The last name on that list, as you likely know by now, has dunked more times than any Cardinal high-riser who has existed before him. Harrell shattered the UofL single-season record for slam dunks a year ago, and is now looking to become the first Cardinal to hit triple digit crams in a season.
When it comes to memorability, it might be impossible for Montrezl to ever top his dunk in the 2013 national championship game. During last Saturday's shocking comeback win over North Carolina, he certainly tried.
In what had been billed as a "revenge game" after the Tar Heels erased a 13-point second half deficit to stun the Cards in Chapel Hill three weeks earlier, UofL again appeared unready for the spotlight. North Carolina led by 11 at halftime, and quickly pushed the lead to 18 in the opening segment of the second half. Louisville appeared destined to drop its third game in the month of January, and to be branded with the label of a team incapable of beating any of the best opponents on its schedule.
Then the latest chapter of Montrezl Harrell's violent dunk-themed novella was written.
With the momentum shifting to Louisville's side but the Cards still trailing by 10, Harrell knocked away a UNC entry pass which wound up in the hands of point guard Chris Jones. Jones and Harrell then raced down the floor together until the junior All-American candidate made that all-too-familiar one-finger point to the sky.
The ball seemed destined to wind up in the front row of the crowd, a squandered opportunity at a time where Louisville could ill-afford to waste any scoring chance bestowed upon it. Ninety-nine point nine percent of human beings on the planet wouldn't have dared belittle the hard-earned reputation of gravity by even attempting to reach for the pass. Montrezl Harrell not only caught it, but in the same motion, he dunked it.
The play looked eerily similar to New York Giants rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.'s "catch of the century" ... if Beckham Jr. had then gone on to dunk the football.
"I was running the floor, I pointed up to the rim, and he put it up there," Harrell said after the game. "I told these guys even before the season started, 'if you throw it anywhere around the rim, I'm going to go up and catch the ball, it'll be a turnover on me before it'll be a turnover on you.'"
Chris Jones, the man who threw the pass, wasn't as blasé about the play as Harrell. Jones said he agreed with North Carolina head coach Roy Williams, who referred to Harrell as "possessed" in his postgame press conference.
"I think he's possessed too" Jones said. "I'm with Roy. If I throw it up, he can come and get it from anywhere. I don't know what's up with this man."
The basket technically counted for as many points as Terry Rozier's lay-up on the next possession and Harrell's short bank shot on the possession after that, but in terms of momentum and energy, the dunk felt like a 10-point play that pulled Louisville even. The scoreboard eventually caught up with the Yum Center's exuberance, as the Cards forced overtime before pulling out a 10-point victory that could wind up changing the entire direction of the team's season.
Louisville now has the marquee victory that had eluded it up to this point, and escaped the distracting off-the-court storyline of "not being able to win the big one" that would have annoyed the team for a second straight season had the Carolina comeback not happened. As tends to be the case when it comes to success and Cardinal basketball, it all started with a dunk.