AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Longhorns are tearing into the NCAA Tournament behind one of the hottest players in the country in freshman point guard Rori Harmon.
Harmon has been the engine behind an 11-game win streak that saw the Longhorns topple 12-time regular-season Big 12 champion Baylor in the tournament championship game. That run earned the Longhorns (26-6) a No. 2 seed in the Spokane Region in the NCAA Tournament and the right to host the first two rounds.
Awaiting this 5-foot-6 whirlwind on Friday is No. 15 Fairfield (25-6).
Harmon has shouldered a lot since arriving on campus to join a team that returned only one starter but several hard-nosed veterans from last season’s surprise run to the Elite Eight. She knew that Texas coach Vic Schaefer has a mantra that a team’s toughness starts at point guard.
“I knew he was going to expect a lot from me,” Harmon said. “I had to get more strength, more speed and be able to guard 94 feet like we do. But I accepted the challenge.”
And rather quickly.
She scored 21 points when Texas delivered the first big upset of the season with a road win at defending national champion Stanford in November. She won Big 12 freshman of the week honors four times this season.
Harmon accepted Schaefer’s demand that his point guard is accountable for what happens on every play on both ends of the court. After every game, Schaefer has Texas players write the good and bad of their individual and team performance.
After one game, Harmon wrote “I know, It’s all my fault,” Schaefer said. “When you’re the point guard, you have to be accountable for everyone,”
The demands have only sharpened Harmon heading into the postseason.
At the Big 12 tournament, she was nearly perfect in wins over Iowa State and Baylor with 50 points, nine assists and no turnovers while making all 13 free throws. That effort earned her Most Outstanding Player of the tournament honors.
Texas senior guard Joanne Allen-Taylor said Harmon established herself as a premier defensive player as soon as she joined the team. The late scoring burst has been a game-changer for the Longhorns on offense. She comes into the tournament averaging nearly 12 points per game.
“Its changed the dynamic in our team. It’s taken pressure of a lot of us because she’s bringing buckets,” Allen-Taylor said. “We have so much trust in her.”
It’s that complete game Harmon brings that will challenge Fairfield from end to end. The Stags come to the tournament on a 15-game winning streak behind an all-senior and graduate student starting lineup.
The Stags won the MAAC Tournament to earn their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2001. Head coach Joe Frager previously announced he’ll retire at the end of his 15th season due to health concerns.
“It’s been a special run, a special season,” Frager said. “I’ll look back on this year with a lot of fondness.”
ARKANSAS vs. UTAH
Harmon is just one of the top freshmen playing in Austin: Friday’s other game between No. 10 Arkansas (18-13) and No. 7 Utah (20-11) features Razorbacks guard Samara Spencer, the SEC’s freshman of the year, and Utes guard Gianna Kneepkens, the Pac-12 freshman of the year.
Kneepkens entered Utah’s starting lineup after eight games and heads into the tournament as the Utes’ leading scorer at 12 points per game — the same as Spencer.
“She has a nose for the bucket,” Utah guard Brynna Maxwell said of Kneepkens. “I don’t know how she does it. I don’t think you can teach that … She’s fearless.”
Arkansas came to Austin last season as a No. 4 seed and the Razorbacks were promptly bounced out by No. 13 Wright State in one of the biggest upsets of the first round. They haven’t forgotten what it felt like to walk off this court in tears.
“I know it could be my last game,” Arkansas senior guard Amber Ramirez said. “I think we just come out there and fight as much as possible.”
More AP coverage of March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25