Being chosen to play in the McDonald's All-America Game is a highlight of Linnae Harper's four-year high school basketball career. But Whitney Young's 5-foot-8 senior point guard has two other goals that she still has an opportunity to accomplish.
"Winning another state championship and getting a second ring would mean more than going undefeated last year," Harper said as she prepared for Friday's Class 4A semifinal against Marian Catholic in Normal.
"Everyone wants to get a state ring. But when you have two or more, you can say you worked hard and earned it. I want to get two rings in four years. That means I have accomplished something. Most teams never get to go Downstate."
Her other goal is to win the Ms. Basketball award as the best female player in Illinois. "I'm looking forward to getting it. I would be disappointed if I don't get it. But I'm grateful to be nominated for it," she said.
Harper hasn't accomplished all of her goals, however. As an incoming freshman, her goal was to win four state rings. She also wanted to be National Player of the Year.
"I didn't get everything I wanted," she said. "But I'm still grateful for the achievements I did have. I'm most proud of being chosen for the McDonald's All-America Game because I will be able to play in front of my family and friends."
She has been ranked among the top five players in the class of 2013 nationally for the last two years. She chose Kentucky over Tennessee, Miami, UCLA and Ohio State because former Whitney Young teammate Janee Thompson is there. She likes the coaches and the Wildcats' fast-paced style of play and she relishes the idea of competing against perennial power Tennessee.
"I had a great feeling that Kentucky was the place for me to be," she said. "They had everything I was looking for...coaching, academics, fan base, facilities, style of play."
She has worked hard to become a better player than a year ago because she knew there would be more pressure on her this season and she would have to become more of a leader on and off the court.
"Last summer, I worked hard on my three-point shot and my ball-handling and being more physical," she said. "I knew it would be more of a challenge because everybody knows my game. I try to bring something different to every game. I'm a better leader this year, too. Last year, I was more hesitant and naïve. This year, the ball is in my hands most of the time and I have to take control of the game."
Last year's team was talented and deep and went 34-0. "It is rare that a high school team goes undefeated against good competition. But we worked hard and it paid off," she said.
But Harper is having more fun and enjoying this year's 28-4 team even more because it is her team. She is accountable and takes responsibility. Being the leader of the first Whitney Young team to win back-to-back state titles would be another feather in her cap.
"We didn't expect to go undefeated again this year," she said. "This is a different team between December and now. We are more about swagger and confidence. When we step on the court, we walk like we want to be a winner. That has been the key to our success: swagger and confidence.
"On the court, this team gells. In tough times, we stay together. As a freshman and sophomore, we had the best talent. But we didn't stick together in tough times. This year, we do. We encourage and motivate each other. That's the difference between a good team and a great team. We want to prove we can be a great team with four losses."