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Undersized and underrecruited, Jared Harper a perfect catalyst for underdog Auburn

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MINNEAPOLIS — There wasn’t a lot of hype when Jared Harper committed to Auburn in the spring of 2015.

An undersized, three-star prospect from the Atlanta area, Harper led the Nike EYBL in made three-pointers during the spring of 2014. A great sophomore high school season saw Harper lead Pebblebrook to the Georgia state title game as he averaged 21 points and seven assists per game. None of that mattered to high-major programs who were skittish to offer a 5-foot-9 guard with questionable strength.

“I was recruited by some schools and some schools didn’t wanna offer at that time, just because of my size. They didn’t know if I could play at the high Division I level,” Harper said.

Harper’s lack of size didn’t stop Auburn’s coaching staff from going all-in on him early. Assistant coach Tony Jones was the first to see Harper play. Over the next several months, Bruce Pearl’s entire staff began to fall in love with the skills, IQ and confidence Harper brought to the table.

A night after Auburn completed a surprising SEC Tournament run to end the 2014-15 season, Harper pledged to the Tigers. His only other offers at the time were from Kansas State, Ole Miss, UAB and South Alabama.

“BP believed in me from day one,” Harper said. “I just feel like when I stepped on Auburn’s campus for the first time that I could see myself there. It’s a great environment, it’s close to home and my family could come and see all of my games. And being able to play as a freshman was big for me.”

Harper’s commitment, the first Auburn pledge for the Class of 2016, ushered in a new era of Tigers basketball. By committing early, Auburn’s staff could focus on finding pieces to complement their new lead guard while Harper could ignore recruiting and focus on getting better.

By the end of summer 2015, Auburn’s early evaluation was already paying off. Harper elevated into a top-75 national prospect by helping a loaded Georgia Stars team win the Nike EYBL title at Peach Jam. Harper was named co-MVP of the event with Wendell Carter as his blistering shooting was the talk of North Augusta. Even though the Stars featured a loaded roster that had Carter (Duke), Udoka Azubuike (Kansas), Brandon Robinson (North Carolina) and Trent Forrest (Florida State), Harper often looked like the best player on the floor.

“There’s [a couple things] about Jared that made him who he is. He has an incredible belief in himself. A lot of guys doubted him because he’s so little. The confidence is never an issue with him,” former Auburn assistant coach Todd Golden, who helped recruit Harper, said. “And he sees the game like a coach does. He’s been that way since he was young. His father, Pat, put a ball in his hands when he was young. Jared has played a ton of basketball, so when it comes to handling certain situations, he’s already been through it.”

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI – MARCH 31: Jared Harper #1 of the Auburn Tigers celebrates by cutting down the net after their 77-71 win over the Kentucky Wildcats in the 2019 NCAA Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional at Sprint Center on March 31, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Other players also noticed Harper’s abilities as he turned into a recruiter — helping Auburn land two five-star prospects (Mustapha Heron and Austin Wiley) and a quality role player (Anfernee McLemore). Once Harper finally landed on campus, his gym-rat mentality was immediately noticed around the Auburn program. Harper and fellow starting guard Bryce Brown made a habit of living in the gym. Other players followed suit. Harper and Brown’s fathers were also constantly present around the Auburn program, shooting with their sons and talking ball with the coaching staff. A unique father-son dynamic around the Tigers fostered a family-oriented team that never listened to doubters.

“They started that culture of guys being in the gym late at night. They started that culture of guys coming in early in the morning. And now it’s a competition on who can spend the most time in the gym,” Auburn assistant Steven Pearl said. “It’s almost to a fault. We have to tell our guys, ‘get your ass out of the gym, you’re going to be exhausted!’ The guys challenge each other and come in together and it’s just become a great environment with Auburn basketball. We have some of the hardest-working kids in the country.”

Harper’s underdog mentality has fit in naturally with a team making its first-ever Final Four appearance this weekend. A double-figure scorer in all three seasons with the Tigers, Harper is a perfect catalyst for the Tigers with his ability to score and distribute. Auburn will be an underdog when they face No. 1 seed Virginia on Saturday, but they’ve already mowed through blue bloods like Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky the past three rounds. Facing another title hopeful won’t bother a team that has relished the underdog role the past few seasons.

“I feel like we’ve been in the underdog role a lot, I’ve been in the underdog role my entire life,” Harper said. “We’re taking it as it comes, we know what we can do. We know that at the end of the day, it matters what we believe in and what we feel like we can do.”

Women’s Wednesday: Kobe Bryant’s impact on women’s basketball

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“His legacy will live on. You’ll feel Kobe Bryant.”

Dawn Staley’s words ring true as the world continues to mourn the untimely and tragic passing of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, as well as his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.  

Staley, the head coach for the South Carolina women’s basketball team, is a Hall of Fame coach and player and a three-time Olympic gold medalist. She was also a friend of Kobe’s, growing up in Philadelphia and sharing a gym with him under the watch of the 76ers’ John Lucas. The two also participated in the Olympic games together. 

The Laker legend is known worldwide for his impact on the NBA, with five championship titles, two Finals MVPs, and more.

While his resume is endless, Staley also remembers “The Black Mamba” for the father he was to four daughters, and the impact he had on women’s basketball. 

“Kobe was like no other when it came to supporting women’s basketball,” Staley expressed.

“He single-handedly took women’s basketball to another level by showing up at the games, by giving interviews and expressing what he felt was in his heart about women’s basketball. Once you’re able to see women’s basketball in that light, it helps grow the game, especially when it’s someone as powerful as Kobe Bryant, and as thoughtful, as detailed, as he was.”

Staley stressed the impact that Gianna’s love of the game had on her father being a fierce advocate for women’s basketball, saying, “I think Kobe would have been like this in whatever his daughters chose to have a passion about.”

“He thought long term and expressed things that no other professional men’s basketball player would ever say, that there are players in the WNBA that could play in the NBA,” the Gamecocks coach explained. “Kobe saw what he was instilling in his daughter. He probably wanted to say those things about Gigi… that she could one day play in the NBA.” 

After his retirement, Kobe could be found sitting courtside with his daughter, affectionately nicknamed “Gigi,” but he could also be found coaching at Mamba Sports Academy, where he was the head coach for Gigi’s team, the Los Angeles Lady Mambas.

Gigi dreamed of playing for UConn, and the pair frequently went to Husky games together, as well as championed other top women’s programs, such as Oregon. 

“If you look at every single player that he has touched — Sabrina Ionescu, or the entire Oregon women’s basketball team,” Staley said, with emotion evident in her voice. “You look at UConn. Gigi wanted to go to UConn, she was fascinated with what accomplishments and traditions UConn stood for. We feel [her loss], there is a big void.”

Kobe’s passion for basketball, paired with the love he had for Gigi, has left many thinking that he would have become more involved in the WNBA in years to come. 

“I think women’s basketball would’ve grown to the point where Kobe would’ve put more of his money into it, because I know he put money into the Mamba Academy,” Staley said. “I’m sure he eventually would’ve gotten around to maybe even buying a team or buying into the league in some form or fashion.”

The devastating helicopter crash that took nine lives — including two other young girls, GiGi’s teammates, taken far too early — reminds us all of the fragility of life, and how quickly it can be taken away from us. 

In the wake of this tragedy, people are turning towards love and one another. 

Timelines are flooded with stories and anecdotes about Kobe, his relationship with his wife, Vanessa, and four daughters. Buildings and memorials all over the country are lit up in purple and gold, while tributes for the all-star pour in from as far away as the Philippines. 

Kobe has left a lasting legacy, one that Staley won’t forget.

“I hope with several of the NBA players, when they speak on keeping Kobe’s legacy alive, they will bring the women’s game along with it.

“Because that’s what Kobe Bryant was doing.”

WEDNESDAY’S NEWS AND NOTES

UConn faced off against the U.S. national team on Monday night, putting up impressive show but ultimately falling short of an upset in a 79-64 loss. Fiver former Huskies dressed for the national team’s exhibition game.

Alongside many NBA teams, UConn and Team USA took honorary shot clock violations to start the game as a tribute to Kobe Bryant. 

The Huskies set up a stunning memorial for the late Gianna Bryant, who dreamt of playing for UConn one day, on their bench:

– The top teams in the county took care of business this weekend, with not a single ranked team upset by a lower-ranked team on Saturday or Sunday. 

– South Carolina maintained its No. 1 spot atop the polls, with 26 first-place votes from the AP panel, after an 88-53 rout of Georgia on Sunday. Baylor is No. 2 once again as well. 

– The rest of the top-10 reflects the talent among the top teams, with UConn and Oregon swapping spots as Oregon notched two back-to-back wins over rival Oregon State to take No. 3 in the rankings from the Huskies. The Ducks beat the Beavers 76-64 on Friday, outscoring Oregon State 45-29 in the first half, and then again on Sunday, 66-57.

When asked about her mentor and friend Kobe Bryant after the game, Sabrina Ionescu replied that “this season’s for him”:

Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu continued on her record-breaking rampage, toppling Gary Payton’s passing record as the all-time leader for Pac-12’s men and women’s assists. She is now No. 7 on the women’s career assists list.

– In another in-state rivalry, then-No. 18 Arizona secured the 59-53 upset over then-No. 16 Arizona State. The Wildcats jumped up to No. 16 while the Sun Devils dropped to 19.

– No. 7 N.C. State continues to impress with a 76-68 win over rival North Carolina. 

– And in the Play Of The Week: Anna Makurat goes behind the back to Christyn Williams for the layup in STYLE:

“I trust the SEC office will do the right thing,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes says after bump from official

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Tennessee 63-58 loss to Texas A&M wasn’t without some controversy.

In the final seconds of the game, official Mike Nance appeared to bump into Vols coach Rick Barnes, who was standing stationary on the sideline, and the two exchanged words.

“I really have a lot of confidence in the SEC office that they are going to look at that,” Barnes said after the game about the incident, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. “I believe they will look at this game and take it apart. I just think they will do that. That shouldn’t happen in any way shape or form. I would like to say what I want to say, but I won’t because I trust the SEC office will do the right thing.”

Nance was headed to the monitor to review a call when the bump occurred, and Nance appeared to ask Barnes if the coach initiated the contact.

“Coach (Bob) Knight told me a long time ago that in a game officials are going to miss seven to nine or 10, 11, 12 calls,” Barnes said. “He kept going up every year. He said, ‘You just hope things aren’t egregious at any point in time.'”

Coach K screams at Duke fans, defending Jeff Capel

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In one of the stranger things that we’ve seen in college basketball this season, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski went off on the Cameron Crazies for what he believed was a shot they were taking at former Duke player Jeff Capel.

The crazies were chanting, “Jeff Capel sit with us.” Coach K thought he heard something else.

Check out the video:

After the game, Coach K acknowledged that he misheard what the fans said, adding that he will apologize for the mishap.

“I made a mistake,” he said. “But I’d rather make a mistake for the protection of my guy.

“I love Jeff. I erred on that side. I just hope the ACC doesn’t fine me like they did [Mike] Brey.”

He ended the back and forth with this: “Jeff can sit with me anytime.”

 

Tuesday’s Things to Know: Villanova gears up for big stretch, Auburn wins ugly in 2OT and Rutgers keeps rolling

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The headliner of Tuesday night was Virginia regaining an NCAA tournament pulse with a win over No. 5 Florida State, but there were plenty of other developments on the bubble across the country.  Here’s what else you need to know:

1. Villanova runs streak to seven ahead of grueling stretch

Jay Wright’s team had little trouble winning its seventh-straight Tuesday with a 79-59 victory at Madison Square Garden over St. John’s. Saddiq Bey was brilliant, scoring 23 points on 8 of 14 shooting, including 5 of 9 from deep. Collin Gillespie was equally great, going for 17 points, 13 boards and six assists while Jeremiah Robinson-Early had 13 points and 14 rebounds. Cole Swider and Justin Moore both had 11 to put all five Wildcat starters in double-figures to help offset the absence of the injured Jermaine Samuels.

The victory, while unremarkable given St. John’s mediocrity, keeps momentum for Villanova heading into a huge stretch that very well could decide the Big East. They’ve got Creighton at home Saturday before a trip to No. 16 Butler and then back-to-back home games against No. 10 Seton Hall and Marquette, which handed the ‘Cats their lone conference loss this season.

How Villanova emerges from this four-game stretch – and subsequently what the Big East landscape looks like – will likely be determined by a couple of things. If the ‘Cats are going to make it through in the conference driver’s seat, it’ll probably because Villanova’s defense proves for real. The Cats’ defense this season on the whole has been fine, ranking 60th nationally on KenPom, but it’s been the best in the Big East during conference play. They’ve been stingier both inside and outside the arc while improving on the glass. They’ve kept opponents from launching a lot of 3s and have mostly kept them off the line.

Wright’s team is going to be fine offensively, even if they haven’t been elite in Big East play yet. If the defense holds up, the ‘Cats are going to be sitting pretty come March.

2. No. 17 Auburn comes from behind to win in 2OT

Things were looking pretty dire for Auburn. The Tigers narrowly avoided a third loss in four games over the weekend when they blew a big lead to a sub-.500 Iowa State team, and then they fell behind by 19 in the second half Tuesday at Ole Miss.

It turned out to be nothing to be worried about, unless you were on your couch hoping to watch good overtime basketball.

The Tigers narrowly escaped, 83-82, against the Rebels, overcoming a huge deficit and mistakes of their own making that could have negated their comeback but instead will be footnotes.

Auburn shot 56 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from 3-point range in the second half to mount its comeback while Ole Miss shot just 33 percent. They nearly gave the game away, though, after taking a two-point lead in the final seconds of overtime. The Tigers missed a jumper that would have put them up four with 25 seconds left, but the shot missed and they inexplicably fouled on the rebound to allow Ole Miss to tie the game with 22 seconds left on free throws. After a missed 3 in a tie game by Danjel Purifoy, Ole Miss gave Auburn a gift it just wouldn’t accept. Devontae Shuler’s inbounds pass under the basket with 2 seconds left went astray and was headed out of bounds, which would have resulted in no time coming off the clock and Auburn getting the ball on the baseline, but Isaac Okoro, for some reason, grabbed the ball, waited a second and called timeout. Samir Doughty’s forthcoming 3 out of the huddle as time expired miss to send things to 2OT.

Ole Miss led by as many as four in overtime, but Auburn took the lead with 1:41 left. The two teams traded missed opportunities for the remainder of the game, leaving the Tigers with a win.

College basketball: Not always pretty, but rarely boring.

3. Rutgers continues to build its case

It’s been 29 years since Rutgers last made the NCAA tournament. It’s been 13 since the Scarlet Knights even finished above .500 in a season. Both those streaks seem incredibly likely to fall in just a handful of weeks.

Rutgers ran its overall record to 16-5 and its Big Ten mark to 7-3 with a 70-63 victory Tuesday at home against Purdue.

Steve Pikiell’s team is building a bulletproof resume after losses to St. Bonaventure and Pittsburgh in the first month of the season made it seem as the status quo would be very much in place in Piscataway this winter. Since then, the only three losses Rutgers have taken have all been on the road to high-quality opponents, with Michigan State, Illinois and Iowa the only teams able to get the best of them.

Rutgers is doing it o the strength of a top-10 defense that overcomes an offense that can be clunky at times, especially at the 3-point line. Defense as stout as the Scarlet Knights are playing, though, makes up for a lot of deficiencies on the other end.

Bubble Banter: Virginia, Mississippi State the biggest winners of the night

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It was a wild night on the bubble on Tuesday night, as 12 teams with their NCAA tournament hopes still up in the air were in action.

A full bubble watch breakdown can be found here. Here are tonight’s winners and losers:

WINNERS

VIRGINIA (NET: 58, NBC: Off the bubble): It is impossible to overstate just how big a win over Florida State (15) for a Virginia team that entered the night without a top 50 win to their name. They had one Quad 1 win on their resume — at Syracuse (64) — to go along with wins over Virginia Tech (50) at home and Arizona State (56) on a neutral floor. That’s it. When combined with a pair of Quad 3 losses — South Carolina (89) at home and at Boston College (153) — there’s a reason that the Wahoos were completely out of the NCAA tournament picture entering the day.

And to be honest, I’m not sure that a win over a top 20 team at home is really going to change all that much. But with just three more games against the top of the ACC left on their schedule, this was an opportunity that could not slip through their fingers.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (NET: 48, NBC: Off the bubble): The Bulldogs added a critical road win on Tuesday night, going into Gainesville and knocking off Florida (37). It’s the second Quad 1 win in six days for Mississippi State, who needs to add some pop to the top of a resume that includes a pair of Quad 3 losses. This will help.

MICHIGAN (NET: 35, NBC: 10): Michigan entered Tuesday night having lost four games in a row and five of their last six and were playing without Isaiah Livers and Zavier Simpson at Nebraska (158). They could not lost this game. They did not.

RHODE ISLAND (NET: 47, NBC: First four out): Rhode Island is in a spot where they probably cannot afford to take a loss to anyone other than Dayton (5), who they play twice, the rest of the season. On Tuesday night, the Rams beat George Mason. Next up: VCU (39) on Friday night.

UTAH STATE (NET: 62, NBC: Off the bubble): Utah State absolutely could not lose at Wyoming (299) on Tuesday, and they didn’t. The Aggies have neutral site wins over LSU (25) and Florida (37), which is enough to keep them in this discussion despite road losses at Boise State (102), UNLV (130) and Air Force (184). They make the trip to Viejas Arena to take on San Diego State (2) on Saturday, and that feels like a must-win for Utah State at this point.

LOSERS

TENNESSEE (NET: 55, NBC: Next four out): The Vols took a loss that they just could not afford to take on Tuesday, falling to a bad Texas A&M (149) at home. It’s their first Quad 3 loss, meaning that now half of their eight losses are outside the Quad 1 level. With just two Quad 1 wins, neither of which came against a top 35 opponent, Tennessee is backing themselves into a corner. The good news? They still play eight Quad 1 games, and that doesn’t include Florida at home. The Vols can survive this if they get hot.

SYRACUSE (NET: 64, NBC: Off the bubble): The Orange saw their five game winning streak come to an end on Tuesday as they fell at Clemson (81). This is not a terrible loss, but for a team that is already trying to make up ground on the field, these are the kind of losses that really hurt.

RICHMOND (NET: 54, NBC: First four out): Tuesday’s visit to the Siegel Center was Richmond’s last shot at getting a Quad 1 win dueing the regular season. They lost to VCU (39) by 17 points. For my money, the Spiders’ at-large hopes are more or less dead.

ST. JOHN’S (NET: 67, NBC: 10): The Johnnies lost for the seventh time in their last nine games when Villanova (14) waltzed into MSG and beat the Red Storm by 20. That’s not ideal. St. John’s is still in the mix because of wins over West Virginia (7) and Arizona (10), the latter of which came on a neutral court. But with road games left against Villanova, Seton Hall (12) and Butler (9), Mike Anderson’s club has backed themselves into a corner.

PURDUE (NET: 36, NBC: Next four out): The Boilermakers dropped to 11-10 on the season with a 70-63 loss at Rutgers (23) on Tuesday night. That means Purdue has dropped five of their last seven games. They’re 2-7 against Quad 1 opponents with a 29 point win over Michigan State (8), but there are a lot of losses on their resume already and the Big Ten is a bear.

VIRGINIA TECH (NET: 50, NBC: First four out): The Hokies did themselves no favors by losing at Miami (106) on Tuesday night. In the last three days, they’ve suffered their two worst losses of the season. The Hokies also have a non-conference SOS that ranks 341st, which eliminates much of their margin for error. The good news? They still have pair of Quad 1 wins — including Michigan State (10) on a neutral — and four of their five Quad 1 and 2 wins came away from home. It’s not all bad.

GEORGETOWN (NET: 52, NBC: Next four out): The Hoyas lost their third straight game on Tuesday night and have now dropped six of their last eight. Making things worse is that they were up by 13 points on Butler (9) late in the first half. This was their best chance to land an elite win this season. They still get Villanova (14) and Seton Hall (12) at home, but the biggest issue with Georgetown’s tournament chances is that they are trending in the wrong direction with just seven scholarship players.