Frosh PG Justice has Louisville off to hot start
Elisha Justice grew up rooting for Kentucky, just like everybody else in tiny Dorton, a hamlet stuck hard against the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern edge of the Bluegrass.
Enter Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who crossed paths with Justice while the heady 5-foot-10 point guard was starring for Shelby Valley, where he earned ''Mr. Basketball'' honors his senior year after leading the Wildcats to a state title.
Pitino liked Justice's relentless play so much he nicknamed Justice ''Bullet'' and offered him a spot as a preferred walk-on.
Justice said yes even though other schools - including Kentucky - later inquired about his availability. Let's just say his decision didn't exactly go over well.
''People are crazy back home, everyone was saying stuff then about 'Oh, you should go to UK' and stuff,'' Justice said. ''It didn't affect me at all.''
Not much does.
Justice put in 21 solid minutes in Louisville's eye-opening 88-73 upset of No. 17 Butler on Tuesday, hardly looking nervous while playing at an electric KFC Yum! Center before 22,000 people, a crowd about seven times the population of his hometown.
Maybe the only one not surprised after Justice scored 12 points, grabbed six rebounds and committed just one turnover against Butler's harassing defense was Pitino.
''I've always felt he had the ability to play,'' Pitino said. ''It was (the media) that doubted him, not me.''
Pitino has labeled Justice an ''old school'' point guard who looks to pass first and shoot second, a refreshing development after four years having mercurial Edgar Sosa running the team.
Justice just shrugs his shoulders at the compliment. He's a point guard, isn't that what he's supposed to do?
''I'm not so worried about scoring,'' he said. ''Just trying to run the show for my team, get them set up in my offense and run the offense for them and stay under control.''
Justice wasn't spectacular against the Bulldogs, but coolly efficient after starter Peyton Siva ran into foul trouble. His only hiccup came at the free throw line, where he made 8 of 12 shots. Justice called the four misses the most he's ever had in his life.
He spent extra time working on his stroke Thursday even though he spent part of practice having a doctor pop the ring finger on his right hand back in place after it popped out.
The injury was so ugly teammate Russ Smith said the mangled finger looked like the letter S. No biggie for Justice, who finished practice and will wear a small bandage on the digit Saturday when the Cardinals (1-0) host Jackson State (0-3).
Pitino doesn't expect Justice to play as much on Saturday as he did against the Bulldogs, though he's not worried about Justice taking on more than he can handle. Pitino spent all summer talking Justice up, a bit of gamesmanship on his part knowing Justice would take the kind words as motivation not to let his coach down.
''When I would hear him talk about me it seemed like he really thought I could play and expected me to do good,'' Justice said. ''It helps to give me confidence and knowing that he's going to put me in the game and expect me to play. Now I feel confidence in myself when I get in the game.''
He certainly looked confident against Butler despite playing in an atmosphere quite different from the one he grew accustomed to at Shelby Valley, a school of about 600 students in Pikeville. He did his best not to get caught up in the hype. He didn't notice Dick Vitale on the sideline or think about the national television audience tuning in.
Justice just did what he's always done, play with a tenacity that helped him set a state high school record for career steals.
Justice's guile would have been welcomed at Kentucky, which has always embraced homegrown talent. Coach John Calipari reached out to Justice last spring, but Justice didn't budge in his commitment to the Cardinals.
It's a rarity for an eastern Kentucky star to snub Big Blue in favor of Louisville, but Pitino allows Justice isn't like most players.
''He said 'Look, I gave my word to Louisville I'm going to walk on with them, and I'm going to do that,''' Pitino said.
It was more than enough for Pitino, who was able to put Justice on scholarship after Samardo Samuels left for the NBA.
It was also enough to sway some of the folks back home in Dorton, four hours and a million miles away from the bright lights of the state's biggest city.
Justice received more than one phone call from friends and family after Louisville's big win saying they were switching allegiances to the Cardinals.
Not everyone, however, is convinced. Louisville was picked to finish 10th in the Big East this year. Justice is hoping the Cardinals prove their critics wrong.
''We just want to come out and play hard,'' he said. ''We showed we could beat Butler, one of the top 20 teams in the country. We're just going to come out ready to play every night wanting to win.''