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Texas overcame loss of Harmon to earn No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament

Texas head coach Vic Schaefer celebrates after cutting down the net after an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State for the Big 12 women's tournament championship Tuesday, March 12, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo. Texas won 70-53. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — An early season injury to the smallest Texas player blew a huge hole in the Longhorns lineup. So big it two took two players to fill.

No one knew what to expect when 5-foot-6 point guard Rori Harmon suffered a season-ending torn ACL in her knee in late December.

But Madison Booker moved from forward to point guard, Shay Holle became the team’s top perimeter defender, and here the Longhorns are, 30-4 and a No. 1 seed as the NCAA Tournament begins on Friday.

They finished second in the Big 12, one game behind Oklahoma, but won the conference tournament.

If the Longhorns, winners of 12 of their last 13 games, defeat No. 16 Drexel (19-14) on Friday, they face the winner of No. 8 Alabama (23-9) and No. 9 Florida State (23-10).

The Longhorns erupted in celebratory dancing Sunday when ESPN announced their first No. 1 seed since 2004.

“What these kids have done is quite remarkable,” coach Vic Schaefer said. “It’s a tremendous accomplishment.”

Harmon, a junior, averaged 14 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.8 assists in 12 games.

She produced 27 points and 13 assists while working as primary defender on UConn All-American Paige Bueckers when Texas defeated the then-No.11 Huskies 80-68 on Dec. 3 in Austin. Bueckers shot 4 for 11 from the field.

Then Harmon was injured during practice a few weeks later on Dec 27.

“It was kind of a shock,” Holle said. “She was the heart of our team, especially at the defensive end. We had to find a new groove.”

Texas won easily that night against Jackson State, but three days later the Longhorns lost their Big 12 opener to No. 10 Baylor 85-79.

Even so, a national television audience witnessed one of the sport’s next big stars. Booker had 25 points, seven rebounds and eight assists, a performance that would become typical.

She averaged 20.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists in Big 12 games. On Wednesday, Booker received second team AP All-American honors. Before that, she was voted co-Big12 Player of the Year and Most Outstanding Player in the conference tournament.

Booker is fortunate that Harmon remained engaged, sitting on the bench with Texas coaches, holding a notebook that says “coach Harmon.”

Her best advice to Booker?

“Stay poised, stay calm, stay true to my game,” Booker said.

Booker has a reliable mid-range jump shot, her best weapon. She had to learn to make quick decisions about shooting versus distributing the ball to teammates.

“She's so unselfish, to a fault,” Schaefer said. “I tell her sometimes, ‘you turned down a 10-footer to throw it out there for a 25-footer,’ so that's something that we've worked on in our late-game situations. She feels really confident in her teammates.”

ALABAMA ADAPTS

Alabama will face Florida State without its third-leading scorer, Jessica Timmons, a guard who suffered a season-ending knee injury during the Southeastern Conference Tournament. She averaged 11.2 points a game. The Tide's top two scorers are guards Sarah Ashlee Barker (17.2 a game) and Aaliyah Nye (14.0). Nye ranks fifth nationally with 3.3 3-point baskets a game and 17th in accuracy with 42.6%. Karly Weathers will replace her in the starring lineup.

“Karly Weathers has done an unbelievable job all season,” Alabama coach Kristy Curry said. “She consistently makes winning plays."

Barker said Timmons maintains a good attitude, helping where she can.

“If I was her, I'd be a wreck, and she's not showing us that,” Barker said. “She's right there telling us, ‘you don’t need me to be on the floor to win these games.' It makes you have this type of energy and this type of excitement. You want to go do something for her."

HOT HAND

Drexel junior Amaris Baker leads her team in scoring with 11.8 points a game after transferring from Harcum, a junior college where she averaged 27 last season. Baker displayed some of that big-time scoring while leading Drexel to four straight victories in the CAA Tournament as the Dragons earned the league's automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament. She averaged 19.8 points in the four games, converting 31 of 54 from the field (57.4%).

Drexel, the No. 7 seed in the CAA Tournament, needed just about all of Baker's points. The Dragons won the first two games by two points and the third by one before beating Stony Brook 68-60 for the championship. They have won seven straight overall. The No. 7 has become an inspiration.

“We were pre-season picked seventh,” coach Amy Mallon said. “Obviously we finished seventh. We tried to flip the switch on that and say it's our lucky No. 7. Going into practices leading into the week, every drill would be seven minutes.”

Forward Hetta Saatman said the Dragons are fine with getting overlooked.

“It's something we embrace," Saatman said. "Nothing is too big for us.”

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