- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2007

As soon as Laura Harper pushed off from the baseline, something went terribly wrong.

“I was standing at halfcourt and heard it pop,” Maryland assistant women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz said.

Just nine games into her freshman year, Harper tore her Achilles tendon in what can only be described as a freak accident.

It was the first practice back after Christmas break, Dec. 26, 2004. Coach Brenda Frese lined her players up along the baseline for routine full-court sprints. Frese blew her whistle. Harper planted her left foot to go, felt a pop, and crashed to the floor, writhing in extreme pain.

“After I did it, it just felt like someone was sawing, like cutting off my foot the whole night,” Harper recalled. “I knew I did something bad because the pop sounded like, almost if you take a belt and snap it. I got up and tried to run it off. I [had] never felt I couldn’t walk, like it was impossible to walk. That’s something I hope no one else has to ever feel.”

Added Frese: “It was one of the most horrific days from our team’s end to ever be able to witness. Just a routine sprint, ya’ know lining up on the baseline, and to see her take that step and crumble, I’ll never forget what that was like.”

If the NCAA awarded a women’s comeback player of the year award, Harper easily could have been at the top of the list last season. After undergoing surgery and a grueling nine-month rehabilitation, Harper found herself standing at the podium in Boston 16 months later hoisting the national championship trophy last year as the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.

“It’s a tribute to her and her hard work,” senior guard Shay Doron said. “The little time she did get to work hard, she did. She improved every day in practice.”

At the time of her injury, Harper’s collegiate career was off to a great start. She was averaging 13.2 points and leading the conference with 9.8 rebounds a game. In just her third game as a Terp, Harper posted a 17-point, 16-rebound effort against then-No. 2 LSU in the Coors Classic in Boulder, Colo.

Being sidelined on crutches her freshman year gave Harper a renewed appreciation for the game.

“I never realized how much basketball affected me, especially just being in college, I don’t do anything but eat, sleep and [play] basketball,” Harper said. “When I’m eating and sleeping, I’m usually around teammates. [The injury] took a whole part of me that I never thought would be gone, away.”

Tomorrow at sold-out Comcast Center, Harper and No. 3 Maryland (21-1, 5-1 ACC) will battle No. 2 North Carolina (22-0, 6-0) on national television.

The 6-foot-4 Harper, who is the tallest player on the defending national champions’ roster, will be key if the Terps are going to hand the Tar Heels their first defeat. With her team-leading 38 blocks, Harper’s long arms could play a role in disrupting the explosive Tar Heels in the paint.

“Playing against her in practice is tough, because she is so long and she is quick,” Maryland center Crystal Langhorne said. “She’s not credited for that a lot, but she is a great shot blocker.”

Harper also enjoys facing North Carolina. In three career meetings with the Tar Heels, Harper has averaged 16 points and eight rebounds.

Together, Harper and Langhorne form arguably the best low-post tandem in the nation. While centers like Oklahoma’s Courtney Paris and Duke’s Alison Bales grab headlines, their respective teams have just one of them, not two. Maryland features two interchangeable inside parts.

“I would put our post players up against anybody in the country; I would bet money on them,” sophomore forward Marissa Coleman said. “I think the main reason they don’t get the credit they deserve is because this team is so balanced. Nobody on this team is ever going to get the recognition of a Courtney Paris or [Duke’s] Lindsey Harding or [Tennessee’s] Candace Parker is going to get because that’s not our style of play. We have seven Candace Parkers and Courtney Parises on this team.”

Harper and Langhorne also complement each other nicely. Whenever Langhorne gets double-teamed down low, Harper is free either in the lane or outside around 15 feet. One area Harper said she worked on in the offseason is her perimeter shooting.

So far this season, Harper has shown she can drift out to the free throw line and knock down mid-range jumpers if the situation dictates.

“I think me and ‘Harp’ really bring a balance of two really talented post players,” Langhorne said.

When asked if she could handle the middle on her own without Harper, Langhorne replied, “No. I don’t think so. I think it would be very tough alone.”

Frese’s second recruiting class of Harper, Langhorne, center Jade Perry and forward Ashleigh Newman in 2004 was rated as the second-best class in the country. That year Frese focused her recruiting efforts on Maryland’s interior, which translated into a national championship.

Harper and Langhorne were McDonald’s high school All-Americans. Harper, who is from Elkins Park, Pa., said choosing Maryland was like coming home. Her father, Haviland, played basketball at George Washington and her older brother Will also attended GW and currently serves as a member of the District’s Metropolitan Police Department.

“I’m home because [Will] is here, and I have the best coaching staff ever and I’m good to go,” Harper said. “Everyone who came here believed in Maryland and I was the same way — bring something new.”

Since her injury, Harper has been pretty consistent from season to season. During last year’s championship run, she averaged 11.5 points and 7.2 rebounds a game while also blocking 70 shots — the second-most ever in a season at Maryland. This season, Harper is averaging 11.8 points and six rebounds.

Harper insists she still needs to develop her game. Harper points to consistency as an area where she needs to improve. An example of a performance she would like to eliminate was in Maryland’s 81-62 loss to now No. 1 Duke on Jan. 13. In that game, Harper made just three of 11 shots for seven points.

“It’s just all-around, be more controlled, [show] composure as a player,” Harper said. “That’s going to come with more confidence, more playing, more working. I still need time to really develop my game.”

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