LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Kyle Kuric tried to hide, draping himself over the words "Denny Crum Court" as his teammates ran a four-man attack and he gasped for just a morsel of oxygen. He wondered if coach Rick Pitino might show mercy, send in a sub.
Fat chance of that happening with Kuric in the process of closing down Freedom Hall with a performance equal parts Junior Bridgeman, DeJuan Wheat and Darrell "Dr. Dunkenstein" Griffith.
Before Saturday afternoon, Kuric shared one quality with those legends: He, too, played basketball for Louisville. Although, in Kuric's case, not a lot. He entered the final game of the regular season — against No. 1 Syracuse, no less — with more DNP's (two) than double-figure scoring games (one) in Big East Conference play.
Wheat, Bridgeman and Griffith were among the dozens of Louisville legends who showed up for the final game at the building they all made famous, the building they all called home. Before they left Freedom Hall for the last time, though, one more hero was added to their number, perhaps the most improbable of all.
A 6-5 sophomore from Evansville, Ind., Kuric was averaging 13 minutes and 3.5 points. In the second half against the Orange, he scored 22 points that included four dunks and four 3-pointers and delivered a 78-68 victory that almost certainly secured the Cardinals' place in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
"I said, 'Kyle, you go in there and dominate this game,' " Pitino said with a smirk. "He said, 'OK, Coach, I've always listened to you.' Isn't that remarkable? I just love players when they listen."
Syracuse forward Wesley Johnson admitted Kuric wasn't even in the scouting report. Should he have been? In the first meeting, when Louisville upset the Orange at the Carrier Dome, Kuric played three minutes and missed his one shot.
It's likely Kuric got serious time in this game because guard Jerry Smith sprained his thumb in the first half and wing Reginald Delk missed all but four minutes of the second half with cramps.
"I wasn't really expecting to play that much," Kuric said. "I had a chance to go in. I had to make the most of it.
"It's an unbelievable moment. It's something that every kid dreams of."
Pitino told his players this was one game in his career in which he felt genuine pressure. Crum was in the audience along with members of his two NCAA championship teams and various stars from the program's Final Four and Elite Eight teams.
That might not have been as disconcerting had Louisville entered with a solid sense of what its season would come to, but the Cards at best were on the good side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
"Last night I got up about 2 in the morning and said, 'What if we lose?' " Pitino said. "No bid. People go home very sad."
When the teams met in Syracuse on Valentine's Day, Louisville did more of its damage on the inside. That and a practice injury that limited Kris Joseph's effectiveness caused Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim to play more with wide-bodies Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson together. Jackson had a dreadful time getting out to challenge Kuric's shots from the left wing.
"They missed so many shots that we got a little bit lax defensively," Boeheim said. "He may be their best shooter; we just don't know because he doesn't play that much. I've never seen anybody come off the bench and do that."
The game was fairly secure by the time Kuric began looking longingly at the seat on the bench that once belonged to him. He still found enough juice for another dunk, though, and when time was called at the 2:39 mark it's quite possible the crowd's celebration rang louder than any in the building's 54-year history.
At the final buzzer, Kuric was pleased to accept congratulations from the Louisville greats who entered the court for a postgame, post-Freedom Hall ceremony.
One reporter later asked Kuric: Did they even know who you were?
"I know they do now," he said.
And they will not forget him.
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