Upbeat Harper has Terps dancing

Back from injury, she makes mark with energy, effort

Ncaa Women

April 01, 2006|By EDWARD LEE | EDWARD LEE,SUN REPORTER

College Park -- Laura Harper has a knack for making everyone associated with the Maryland women's basketball team laugh.

Thirty minutes before the team was set to leave College Park for Albuquerque, N.M., last week, Harper asked coach Brenda Frese if she could get her eyebrows waxed.

Earlier this season, Harper broke into an impromptu dance during the team's weight-training workout, a scene that motivated her teammates to do the same and was captured on film for the Under the Shell reality-type program.

"That's how funny she is," Frese said with a smile on her face.

"Everyone says I'm spunky and I'm crazy. I just have so much energy," Harper said. "People are always telling me to calm down and focus, but I just can't help it. That's how I am."

How she is has helped the Terps advance to the Final Four for the first time in 17 years. Maryland (32-4) will meet North Carolina (33-1) in the first semifinal tomorrow night at 7 at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston.

Harper leads the team in blocks with 69, is third in rebounding with a 7.1 average and fifth in scoring with an 11.0-point average.

Those numbers aren't that far off the 13.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game she had last season in just nine games, before her season was ended by an injury.

"She's come back with force this year," said sophomore guard Ashleigh Newman, who is one of Harper's closest friends on the team. "She's come back and proven once again that she's the type of player she was last year."

Harper ruptured her left Achilles' tendon during practice on Dec. 26, 2004. Her most serious injury before that was a broken left hand during her senior year at Cheltenham High School in Wyncote, Pa.

She knew immediately that something terrible had happened this time.

"I was in tears for so long," she recalled. "Just a feeling of I can't do anything for this team. I felt really, really down, but at the same time, I felt like I couldn't bring this team down."

It took Harper about a week to overcome the shock of the injury and a few more to accept missing the final 23 games of her freshman year.

But nothing prepared her for the arduous rehabilitation schedule that lay ahead.

When the protective boot around her left ankle was removed about six weeks after her operation, Harper would meet daily with associate head athletic trainer Matt Charvat. For a few hours, Charvat would watch Harper do calf raises, run on an underwater treadmill and complete numerous other exercises designed to strengthen the lower leg and return her balance and agility.

Harper often worked on her own and away from her teammates. But the worst part was watching the games, unable to compete.

Harper constantly tried to bend the restrictions Charvat placed on her. During the team's game at Florida State, she took off the protective boot without Charvat's supervision, which earned her a tongue-lashing from the trainer. She called him every week, asking him if she could play in just one pick-up game or for just five minutes. Charvat's answer every time was no.

But Harper never missed a rehab session, Charvat said. "I'd sign on to [e-mail] in the morning and two seconds later, it was almost like she was waiting for me," he said. " `What time can I come today? What can we do?' "

Harper was allowed to return to the court Oct. 15, 2005, the team's first day of practice. She played well at the beginning of the season, starting the first two games and getting 13 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocks off the bench in a five-point loss to then-No. 2 Tennessee.

Harper missed the team's next two games with soreness in her left ankle and did not return to the starting lineup until she and Frese spent an hour reviewing some video clips and discussing her future at Maryland before a Feb. 1 game against Miami.

"She was telling me what kind of player she knew I could be," said Harper, who had a season-high 19 points, nine rebounds and three blocks against the Hurricanes. "I needed that."

Harper has started all but two games since and has taken some of the opposing defenses' focus off sophomore center Crystal Langhorne.

Perhaps more important, Harper has used her 6-foot-4 height to harass some of the best scorers in the game. Baylor's Sophia Young scored 26 points in a regional semifinal loss to the Terps but missed 14 of 25 shots. Utah's Kim Smith missed all six of her attempts in the first half, and although she did score 16 of her 17 points in the second half, she made only six of 16 shots.

"With her being 6-4, she can alter a lot of lineups," Frese said. "At 6-4, people have to shoot over her, she can block shots, and she can do so many things on the defensive end for us."

As Maryland prepares to play in its first Final Four since 1989, Harper said every moment of this season has replaced the low points of last year.

"I never imagined being taken away from the game for so long. I had nothing and felt so depleted at that point, and now we're going to Boston," she said. "If that doesn't inspire you, I don't know what would."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

Final Four

At Boston; all games on ESPN

Semifinals

Tomorrow

North Carolina (33-1) vs. Maryland (32-4), 7 p.m. Duke (30-3) vs. LSU (31-3), 9:30 p.m.

Championship game

Tuesday

Semifinal winners, 8:30 p.m.

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