June 16, 2024

Vic Schaefer was worried.

Texas was headed into a marquee matchup with UConn earlier this month, and the Longhorns coach wondered if he should put junior point guard Rori Harmon on Huskies’ All-American Paige Bueckers. Schaefer knew Harmon, the reigning Big 12 defensive player of the year, was up to the challenge.

But for a chance to beat UConn for the first time in program history, Schaefer thought the Longhorns would need Harmon to produce at the other end of the floor, and he didn’t want her worn out from the defensive effort from matching up with the 2021 national player of the year.

Harmon not only welcomed the opportunity but shined, putting on a masterclass performance in Texas’ 80-68 victory Dec. 3 with 27 points and 13 assists in 39 minutes, the first player in at least 25 seasons to record 25 points and 10 assists against UConn. Her offensive impact plus her work on defense, where she limited Bueckers to 13 points, prompted Huskies coach Geno Auriemma to deem Harmon “the best player we’ve played against this year, by far.”

As one of nine undefeated teams remaining in the Associated Press Top 25, and with that UConn win on its résumé, No. 5 Texas has looked the part of an early Final Four contender. Schaefer pronounced this group as the best team he’s had since arriving in April 2020 with a goal of making the Longhorns relevant once more in both the Big 12 (starting next year, the SEC) and on the national stage. Their Elite Eight appearances in 2021 and 2022 marked massive steps in that direction.

But for Texas to make the program’s first Final Four since 2003 — and Schaefer’s first since 2018, when he led Mississippi State to back-to-back national title game appearances — Harmon’s play and growth will largely dictate the Longhorns’ path. Arguably the best two-way guard in the nation, and on the heels of a transformative offseason that has her feeling like a “completely different basketball player,” Harmon might be poised to help Texas get over the hump.

The Longhorns’ 2022-23 campaign was tumultuous. Harmon missed the first five games due to a foot injury, while Taylor Jones, Sonya Morris and Aaliyah Moore all missed significant time, the latter with an ACL tear. Despite so many key pieces in and out of the lineup, Texas went 26-10 and won its first Big 12 regular-season title since 2003-04 before bowing out of the NCAA tournament in the second round. The Longhorns’ Big 12 championship rings feature the word “perseverance” on the band to acknowledge the adversity.

The Longhorns entered this season largely intact from last year, returning 88% of their scoring and 94% of their rebounding. But Harmon knows that on a Schaefer-led team, the buck stops with her as the veteran point guard.

The 5-foot-6 Houston, Texas, native had already established herself as one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation. Her appreciation for defense, she said, was instilled in her from her dad, a trainer, but she also treats it as an attitude, taking it personally if someone scores on her. She’ll pressure 94 feet, cause problems for an opposing team’s point guard, take a charge and altogether set the tone for the team’s defensive toughness and ferocity, a Schaefer speciality well before he arrived in Austin.

Harmon’s areas of growth in the offseason centered around mental toughness and specific aspects on offense — Schaefer wanted her to shoot better and reduce turnovers.

In the summer, Harmon, fellow guard Shaylee Gonzales and walk-on Sarah Graves were in the gym every day 45 minutes ahead of team workouts. Harmon would get up 200 shots beforehand, with the mindset of, “if I didn’t feel like doing it, I was gonna do it” anyway, she said. Pick-up helped her and teammates learn where they like to be on the floor, and Harmon also specifically worked on understanding reads.

Harmon also changed the way she takes care of her body, as last year’s stress-related injury pushed her to focus on health and recovery like never before. She stays off her feet when possible and ensures she’s doing proper stretching while also prioritizing eating protein and hydrating. For someone like Harmon — who not only exerts herself tremendously on the court, but said she’s discovered she’s a “salty sweater” — that means she can’t just drink water, but has to add electrolytes to it.

Watching from the sidelines during her injury helped Harmon see the game from a new vantage point, but the real breakthrough came two months ago. Dedicating herself to watching more film helped Harmon hone in on the small details that needed to be fixed.

“I understood exactly what Coach Schaefer wanted, exactly how to run this game in college, and I really didn’t have that understanding [before]. I was just good enough to make it look a little decent,” said Harmon, who was named preseason Big 12 player of the year in October. “It’s changed my perspective on a lot of things.”

The combination of offseason work, maturity and dedication to her body has paid off. Harmon’s 52.8% effective field goal percentage is a career high, besting her 42.7% mark from her freshman season. With only 14 turnovers in 11 games, Harmon ranks third in the nation with a 6.07 assist-to-turnover ratio.

And while big-name point guards like Caitlin Clark, Bueckers, Georgia Amoore and Olivia Miles dominate the sport, Harmon is the only Division I player averaging at least 13 points, seven assists, five rebounds and three steals this season. She flirted with a triple-double Wednesday at Arizona, finishing with 19 points, 11 assists and 9 rebounds to help the Longhorns improve to 11-0 for the first time since 2015-2016.

With more help around her compared to last year when she had to regularly put the team on her back due to injuries, it’s easier to take good shots and not force things. And while she might not always score in crazy numbers, Schaefer said, she’ll give you what you need each game.

“I was really impressed with the control she has of herself and the game,” Auriemma said about Harmon. “There was very rarely a time where she’s trying to make a play that’s not the right play at that time, and she takes shots that she knows she can make.”

It’s no coincidence Schaefer’s best Mississippi State teams have been led by good point guards — he points to Morgan William and Jazzmun Holmes, adding “if you’re going to build a program, you better have a point guard.” And so with the return of Moore and DeYona Gaston from injury, the emergence of Jones, the promise of freshman Madison Booker and now the upward trajectory for Harmon, Schaefer’s assessment that this could be his best team since his 2018-19 Mississippi State squad — which he considers his best team of all-time — seems within reach.

The 2019 Bulldogs, who lost to Oregon in the Elite Eight, stood out with Schaefer’s trademark defense paired with a high-powered offense led by Teaira McCowan, beating opponents by an average margin of 28.0 points per game.

This year’s team can also score — its offensive rating (120.0 points per 100 possessions) is fourth in the nation, according to Her Hoop Stats. Schaefer said they’re only “decent” defensively, with room to improve as chemistry and depth develop (Texas’ defensive rating is eighth-best in the country at 72.2).

Regardless, a 10-0 start is a great jumping off point for Schaefer, as is Harmon’s trajectory. And as the Longhorns work through any kinks over the course of the season and eye something big come March, no one at Texas has to worry about what Harmon will bring to the floor on a daily basis.9

“Ain’t nobody on our team play harder than Rori Harmon,” Schaefer said. “She brings that to the table every day, every practice, every game, and that’s what impacts your team in such a positive way.”

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