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Texas' Harmon injured but still a big presence in March Madness as mentor to Booker and Longhorns

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas point guard Rori Harmon knew it was bad when her knee crumpled during a December pregame practice while doing a basketball move she'd done probably thousands of times.

“Nobody even touched me,” Harmon said. “But I knew ... .”

She was right. The leader of a Longhorns team that started the season as a favorite to reach the Final Four was done for the season with a torn ligament.

But after the initial tears from Harmon, her teammates and coach Vic Schaefer, she did not slink into the shadows of a long recovery. Harmon has been front and center with Texas, cheering, coaching and mentoring hotshot freshman Madison Booker, who took over as team leader and has the No. 1 seed Longhorns (32-4) rolling into the Sweet 16 and a March Madness matchup with No. 4 Gonzaga (32-3) on Friday night.

Harmon said she can still be a “heartbeat” for a team chasing its first Final Four appearance since 2003.

“It's not like I'm going to fall off the face of the Earth and never play again ... I can't give up” on this season, Harmon said this week. "I still had to give my teammates my experience and knowledge and hear my voice.”

The biggest benefactor has been Booker, who had already been projected as the Big 12 preseason freshman of the year.

With the 5-foot-6 Harmon's bouncy speed, playmaking and defense balanced by the 6-foot-1 Booker’s size, creativity and shotmaking, they were a force on the floor together. Texas dismantled powerhouse UConn 80-68 in a December game where the Longhorns were in total control.

Harmon was injured three weeks later, forcing Booker to move from shooting guard to the point. Texas started Big 12 play with a loss to Baylor.

But with Harmon on the bench, at Booker's side and constantly in her ear, the freshman steadily took over. She averages 16.8 points and five assists per game, and was the first freshman to earn Big 12 player of the year honors.

In that early season loss to Baylor, Booker was overwhelmed by the Bears’ fast start and got benched.

Harmon, still wearing her knee brace, hobbled over to meet Booker coming off the court.

“Relax,” Harmon told her. “Take a deep breath.”

“One of the issues I had as a freshman was maturing. It was really challenging,” Harmon said. “There wasn’t really anybody I could look up to ... I didn’t want that to happen to her. I also wanted to let her know what you have to do to be good at basketball. Sometimes I’m not going to tell you what you have to do. You have to figure it out. During the game, there’s no earpiece.”

Booker soaks up everything.

“She's like smaller coach Schaefer, honestly,” Booker said. “She knows everything. With me, she's like a big sister.”

Harmon does more than talk. When sitting on the bench during games and practice, she tracks defensive rebounds, turnovers and defensive stops. As an unofficial assistant, the staff presented her with a customized “Coach Harmon” notebook.

When Texas won the Big 12 Tournament, Harmon slowly climbed the ladder to take her turn at cutting down the net. Schaefer was right there, cautiously guiding her first steps up.

“Rori's been nothing short of spectacular,” Schaefer said. “To have an injury like that is devastating ... And it could have gone one or two ways, and obviously it's gone the right way. She's really stayed engaged."

Harmon was flattered by the “Coach Harmon” nickname. But it also means she's not playing.

She remembers how the Longhorns carved up UConn before her injury. Harmon had 27 points and 13 assists, and her lockdown defense held Huskies All-American Paige Bueckers to 13 points.

Booker scored 20 and the Huskies simply had no answer for the duo that day.

Watching Bueckers and UConn can now be an inspiration for Harmon. Bueckers was the AP Player of the Year as a freshman but missed most of the past two years with injuries. She scored 32 points against Syracuse on Monday to get the Huskies back to the Sweet 16.

"I prayed so hard a year ago today to be in my shoes where I’m at right now,” Bueckers said.

Harmon said she is ahead of schedule on her rehab. She has started running and will be jumping again this week.

“I want to come back fast,” Harmon said. “I'm not going to rush myself, but I'm very capable."

And when she does? A rebirth of the Rori and Madison show that was so brief yet so tantalizing in December?

“You saw us ... You can see what firepower we have,” Harmon said. “People are going to see a Madison improved, playing with someone ready for revenge.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness