Whites Creek grad lives the dream with game-winning shot in NCAA Tournament

Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 7:27pm

DENVER — Demonte Harper was just living the dream — his coach’s dream.

The night before his Morehead State Eagles would open the Southwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament against No. 4 seed Louisville, head coach Donnie Tyndall dreamt up the last-second shot.

Well, sort of.

“I really didn't dream it. I was just up about 2:30 [early Thursday morning], and couldn't get back to sleep,” Tyndall said. “I kept saying, ‘What am I going to do here?’ I just said, ‘Man or zone, down one or down two, we're going to go for the win.’”

That is exactly what Tyndall, Harper and No. 13 seed Morehead State did on Thursday at the Pepsi Center. Trailing by two with 23.8 seconds left, Tyndall called a timeout and drew up his game-winning play.

He left the outcome in Harper’s hands and the Whites Creek grad delivered. The 6-foot-4 Harper, who had missed his previous five 3-pointers, held the ball near halfcourt for more than 10 seconds. He then dribbled in on Louisville’s Peyton Siva, pulled up at the top of the key and hit a 3-pointer that put the Eagles up 62-61 with 4.2 seconds left.

Kenneth Faried blocked a jumper by Louisville’s Mike Marra as time expired and the Eagles held on for the biggest upset of the day.

Morehead will play Richmond, which upset fifth-seeded Vanderbilt, on Saturday in the third round.

“[Tyndall] said, ‘I know exactly where I am going to,’” Harper said. “‘I am going to put it right in your hands, Demonte’. ... I hit the shot and it feels unreal right now.”

Morehead (25-9), the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament champion, led by as many as 13 in the first half. It was boosted by 17 rebounds from Faried, the nation’s leading rebounder, and 23 points by Terrance Hill.

But Big East power Louisville (25-10) battled back, grabbed the lead before halftime, pushed it to eight and led 61-57 with 1:20 left. Faried, however, made two free throws and then grabbed a rebound after Louisville’s Elisha Justice missed the front end of a one-and-one at the free-throw line.

That set up the game-winner for Harper, who averages 16 points per game. Prior to the last sequence, however, he was 2-of-10 from the field and 0-for-5 from 3-point range for just five points. But he created separation from Siva on a crossover and delivered a shot that looked “money” as Faried put it.

“I'm just being honest,” Faried said. “We stay after [practice] late in the gym. I shoot my free throws. He is shooting his 3-point shot. I just think he has that perfect form, that perfect step back. He was up, [my] eyes lit up. It was good.”

• Not-so-funky dunking: Jeffery Taylor went in for a couple of his signature, high-flying dunks and something unusual happened both times — he missed.

Vanderbilt’s athletic 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward had a very hard time to get any of his shots to fall on Thursday as he finished with just four points in the Commodores’ 69-66 loss to Richmond in the Southwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament at the Pepsi Center.

Taylor was just 1-of-10 from the field, and missed all his shots from close range. He didn’t attempt a 3-pointer.

“Obviously I didn’t help my team at all [Thursday],” Taylor said. “I feel like a big part of the loss should be on my shoulders.”

During one stretch, with his team up six with more 15 minutes to play, Taylor went in for a dunk on an alley oop. But he bobbled the ball and his dunk hit the back of the rim. The next possession, he went in for a two-handed slam but didn’t see Francis Martel, who came from behind and blocked the attempt.

The Spiders finished with nine blocks. The second missed dunk led to a 3-pointer by Richmond’s Kevin Anderson.

“In basketball, it is usually a lot of small plays that can you get the win,” Taylor said. “Obviously it is a huge momentum swing when you miss easy, easy shots around the basket and the other team gets the ball and goes down and does something with the ball. It is a combination of a lot of things that lost us the ballgame.”

Taylor averaged 15.1 points heading into the NCAA Tournament. He was coming off a three-game stretch in which he averaged 21.7 points at the Southeastern Conference Tournament last week.

Despite the shooting woes, he still grabbed nine rebounds and had the task of guarding Richmond’s small but speedy Anderson. The 6-foot guard scored 25 points and used crossovers and his quickness to separate from the taller Taylor, who was named to the All-SEC Defensive Team.

“He is a really nifty player,” Taylor said. “He has a lot of game to him, a lot of different moves that he uses. He is really quick as well. He is a tough guy to guard.”

• Ezeli plays big: Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli provided a boost right from the start, when he made the game’s first basket on a hook shot.

He didn’t cool down from there. He scored 13 of his 21 points in the first half and was 8-for-10 from the field. The 6-foot-11 junior center made his first five shots, using both hands to knock down hook shots and jumpers to account for most of Vanderbilt’s 26 points in the paint.

“I think Ezeli is going to be a great player,” Richmond coach Chris Mooney said. “We wanted to maintain our game plan and maintain our discipline on the shooter, try to make sure we didn’t give up any open 3s because we were too worried about him. But he is a really good player, someone who is getting better and better.”

Still, Ezeli felt he could have done more, especially from the free-throw line where he was 5-for-10. As a team, Vanderbilt shot just 14-of-23 from the line.

“I wasn’t a big help with that,” Ezeli said. “Five-for 10? That is crazy. I just wanted to help my team win. That is what I try to do every night, try to help my team. But I didn’t do that [Thursday].”

Close game struggles: With the loss, the Commodores finished the season 1-5 in games decided by three points or fewer.

Their other four losses came against NCAA Tournament teams — West Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee. Their only one-possession victory was against Marquette on Dec. 29.

“We have had trouble closing out games this year,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “Historically, our teams I think have been pretty good at that. I think the records will tell you we’ve been very good in close games… That’s my job to get that fixed and get that done. It is something that has been going on all season long. Believe me when I tell you we spend an inordinate amount of time on it in practice. I just thought we tightened up a little bit when the game close there toward the end.”