LEXINGTON — Kentucky coach John Calipari says Josh Harrellson has emerged as a solid player for the Wildcats this season because of his incredible work ethic.
Teammates insist the same thing and say getting more serious on the court also helped. Harrellson admits he is in better shape than he’s ever been, but also acknowledges his role was enhanced when Enes Kanter was declared ineligible by the NCAA.
However, there might also be another reason Harrellson has gone from barely playing the previous two years to averaging 7.3 points, a team-high 8.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocked shots per game going into Friday’s East Regional showdown with No. 1 Ohio State.
His girlfriend, Cara Johnson of Lexington, is now a graduate student at Kentucky after spending Harrellson’s first two years at UK as a student at Western Kentucky.
“I do believe her being closer does help him. It keeps him realistic,” said Harrellson’s father, Doug. “They do a lot of charity things and other stuff together. He excels knowing she is there watching. I just think it is a wonderful thing she is there and so supportive. They are good couple and get along great. Her whole family is wonderful and I don’t think it is a coincidence that she is in Lexington now and he’s having his best year.”
The Kentucky senior met her through her twin sister’s husband, Chris Walker. He was an assistant coach at Kentucky under Billy Gillispie after playing for him at Texas A&M.
“Casey (my sister) and Chris started dating but he would bring Josh around our family to church and dinner and things, so I met him when Chris would bring him around. The first time we actually hung out was at KBA (Kentucky Basketball Academy) at one of Chris' basketball games,” Johnson said. “I think we played horse the whole time. After that we started talking and hanging out a lot, and it went from there.”
She was born in Bowling Green but moved to Lexington when she was 2 years old. Like many Kentuckians, she’s always been a UK fan.
“I have played basketball since I was in third grade at Lexington Christian Academy. I always wanted to go to a big school so I chose Western Kentucky. I played intramurals there and even here at UK in grad school. I miss it a lot, but I try to play horse or one on one with Josh. Sometimes I even let him win,” she said.
“I am a die-hard UK fan for sure. I can’t remember not being a die-hard UK fan. I used to be in love with Chuck Hayes when I was in middle school. I love that Josh plays for my favorite team, but its definitely not why I date him. I am a huge Josh fan, too, and I love UK basketball even more now.”
She really doesn’t remember how her family reacted when she started dating Harrellson.
“They have always been UK fans as well, so everyone loved when Chris would bring players around our family. They fell in love with Josh from the beginning,” Johnson said. “Josh gets along great with my family and all my friends, too. Like me, they love him as a person, and the fact that he is a UK player is just a bonus.”
Harrellson doesn’t hesitate to give Johnson credit for helping him through difficult times under Gillispie his first year and then last season when current UK coach John Calipari barely played him.
“She has definitely played a big role for me. From my first year, she has always been there to hear me complain about Coach and just listen to me and tell me it would be OK,” the UK senior said. “She is always saying just think about it, keep playing, don’t quit. Especially last year when I wasn’t playing much, but she always told me great game whether I played or not.
“This year early in the season when I tweeted and got in trouble (with Calipari), I got real down on myself and then I started having to run. I didn’t want to run. I was thinking I could go somewhere else to play or whatever. She was like, ‘No. Just stick it out. It will be all right.’ Then I start seeing results and she is still right there to tell me ‘good game.’”
He says often after games she has already sent him a text message by the time he gets to the locker room complimenting his play.
“She has always been there for me and I appreciate that,” he said.
So is it a coincidence or not that his play has improved with her back in Lexington this season?
“It could be, or maybe she just inspires me to work harder,” he smiled and said.
She hopes to find a way to get to Newark for Friday’s game. She went to the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Atlanta with her aunt and then had already made plans to meet her sister and mother in Florida for a spring break vacation.
“My sister teaches high school in Texas and we had our spring break trip planned to meet my mom in Fort Myers (Fla.). Then UK got to play in Tampa and we were able to go to the games,” Johnson said. “I thought after the SEC that would be it for me. Now I really want to go to Newark but I just don’t know if I can or not. I would love to go, though.”
Even if she doesn’t make Friday’s game, she has cherished the last two weeks. Harrellson made the SEC All-Tournament team and then had back-to-back 15-point games in wins at Tampa to help UK advance.
“It is just unreal watching him. I am so happy for him,” Johnson said. “I have been around for the years that were really hard and would get so upset it would make me cry.
“I care so much and have always known he could play. Last year he did not get a chance to play and I wanted so bad for him to get a chance to show people what he could do.
“Now these last few games he has been able to prove how much the team needs him. He is finally getting to show how good he is and is getting what he has deserved. He has worked so hard.
“He could have left and played somewhere else. But he stayed and is playing great at the perfect time. I am just so proud of him because I know what this means to him after all he went through the previous two years.”