As someone who knows coming through in the clutch oh-so-well, Aaron Harrison could fully appreciate twin brother Andrew Harrison’s coolness under pressure Saturday. Andrew made two free throws with six seconds left to propel Kentucky to a 68-66 victory over Notre Dame and into the Final Four.
“I’m proud of him,” Aaron said before musing, “It’s probably tougher to hit free throws than a game-winning three because you’ve got to sit there and think about it.”
Indeed, Andrew had a moment to ponder the circumstances: Kentucky’s unbeaten record, the presumption of a national championship, an unflappable opponent playing well, a sellout crowd that included LeBron James and Chris Christie. But Andrew recoiled from the notion that his ability to perform in what Theodore Roosevelt called “the crowded hour” was more difficult than, say, Aaron’s famous three-peat of winning 3-point shots in last year’s NCAA tournament.
“I don’t know about that one,” he said. “I don’t know how he could say that. Only he would say that.”
Brotherly love aside, the free throws showed again that Kentucky has two (and surely several more) players who can come through at decisive moments.
For the twins’ father, Andrew’s free throws were a form of deja vu (or is that deja Blue?). So was Aaron’s drive to a dunk and swish of a 3-pointer – his only baskets of the game – after Kentucky found itself behind 59-53 with less than six minutes left.
“They’ve been doing that forever,” Aaron Harrison, Sr., said. AAU and high school basketball. College basketball. High school football.
“It’s a blessing from God,” the players’ father said. “They did that many times (growing up). I tried to talk them through those situations. Don’t panic.”
Coaches on a Final Four teleconference Monday noted several qualities that help any player make winning plays.
“The biggest thing is you cannot be afraid to miss the game-winning shot,” UK coach John Calipari said. “It’s not that you want to make it. It’s that you’re not afraid to miss it. ...
“You have to have amnesia. You have to be willing to risk. Those two have it.”
As Kentucky fans know all too well, the most noted clutch player in NCAA tournament history might be Duke’s Christian Laettner. When a reporter used Laettner as an example in posing a question about athletic courage, Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said, “There aren’t very many people like Christian Laettner because he was a fabulous talent in addition to being clutch.
“He wanted to be in those moments, but a clutch player does not have to be as talented (as Laettner). It doesn’t have to be a star player. ...
“Usually a clutch player is really smart in pressure situations, and, as a result, is immersed in the moment that is going on.”
Shane Battier was such a player for Duke, Krzyzewski said. Freshman Justise Winslow has shown the knack this season.
Then, Krzyzewski added of Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones, “Our two guards have really been great in handling the ball (and) shooting free throws in pressure situations.”
Coaches can help foster a player’s ability to come through when it matters most. Calipari cited the value of telling players not to place pressure on themselves because of a missed shot. Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan spoke of practicing last-second situations. Coincidentally, Andrew Harrison recalled such a thing when he said his free throws against Notre Dame were “stuff you practice in your front yard when you’re a kid.”
Krzyzewski said a coach can help by trying to put players in positions to use their ability to make free throws or find open teammates or contest the opposition’s chances to do the same in what Kentucky players have called winning time.
“Most of it is on the player, and then the coach to make sure that he’s trying to use it, he’s trying to use that talent,” the Duke coach said. “It’s really a talent.”