Last year, Whitney Young's 5-foot-8 point guard Linnae Harper was nominated as the only junior among five female finalists for the Dr. James Naismith Prep Player of the Year Award. She was that good. But coach Corry Irvin insists Harper is even better this year.
"She is the best player in the state, better than last year," Irvin said. "Her decision-making is better. She didn't have to make a lot of decisions last year but she has to control the offense this year.
"She had to step up and become a leader. She also distributes the ball. People don't realize what a good passer she is. She fills into a role where she can take over a game. At times, she has to carry this team."
Harper, who is committed to Kentucky, has been invited to participate in the McDonald's All-America Game at the United Center in Chicago on April 3 and Nike's WBCA All-Star Game on April 6 in New Orleans. She is ranked as the No. 5 player in the class of 2013 nationally.
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"I never remember seeing a guard of her size as strong as she is and with the ability to rebound," said former Chicago Sun-Times high school editor Steve Tucker, an acknowledged expert on girls basketball.
Tucker compares Harper favorably to former Bolingbrook star Ariel Massengale, Illinois' Ms. Basketball in 2011 who currently is a starter at Tennessee.
"She does more things than Massengale. She can run a team, play inside or outside, defend, handle the ball, rebound and pass. She knows the game better than any young kid I have seen. She has such a high basketball IQ for knowing what to do and when to do it. She is physically mature," he said.
Harper is flattered by comparisons to Massengale but she just tries to be herself. "I'm just trying to be the best player I can be. I'm not trying to compare myself to anyone else," she said.
Last year, she led Whitney Young to a 34-0 record and the Class 4A championship by averaging 19 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two steals per game.
This year, she is averaging 19 points and six assists per game for a 28-4 team that will meet Marian Catholic in the Class 4A semifinals on Friday in Normal.
The Dolphins advanced by edging old nemesis Bolingbrook 61-60 in overtime on Tuesday night in the supersectional at Hinsdale Central. Khaalia Hillsman scored with eight seconds left and Harper stole the ball at mid-court to spoil fourth-rated Bolingbrook's upset bid.
Hillsman, who scored nine points in the overtime, finished with 12 points, five rebounds and three blocks. Harper had 26 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. Taylor Brame had 13 points and six rebounds.
"It's a relief to get past Bolingbrook," Irvin said. "We're excited to play them. It's kind of an expectation to play them every year. It's a challenge for us just to have to beat them to get Downstate. I think we're the two best teams in the state."
The Whitney Young/Bolingbrook rivalry is a classic. Last year, Whitney Young won in four overtimes in the supersectional. In 2008, Whitney Young beat Bolingbrook for the state title.
Bolingbrook defeated Whitney Young en route to four state titles. In 2006, the Raiders won 40-38 in overtime in the semifinals. They bested Whitney Young in the 2009 and 2010 state final. And they ousted the Dolphins 50-49 in overtime in the 2011 semifinals.
Irvin, who has posted a 238-21 record in the last eight years, has good vibes about this team.
"I feel good about this team. The key is to focus and the ability to concentrate on things we try to do. We can't have mental lapses. Harper has to do things she is used to doing. It is important that the others play their roles and don't stand around watching her. We are better when everybody is involved," the coach said.
The other starters are Hillsman, a 6-foot-5 junior; Brame, a 5-foot-10 junior; 5-foot-8 sophomore Katrina Beck and 5-foot-7 senior Sydney Snower, who is committed to Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Tanita Allen, a 5-foot-10 sophomore, comes off the bench.
"I compare this team to our 2008 championship team," Irvin said. "We have big players with guards that give us a variety of things. We were guard heavy last year. They carried the load. Now we have bigger players playing the way we need them to play. They are more athletic. We have size, defense and an ability to rebound."
In her 12th season, Irvin is getting used to the hustle and bustle and pressure of the state tournament grind. But as she packs for her eighth straight trip to the Final Four, she admits that the team experience is different every year.
"This year? We had a rocky middle part of the season. That made the year different," she said. "We were undefeated last year so it is hard to follow up. We had to make changes. Now we are playing well at the right time."
And so is Linnae Harper.
"I like to play when it is tough and be in different situations and pull through. I like to compete all the time. Every time I'm on the court I try to give my all," she said.
"I still have to complete my game. I never would have thought I would get this far. It puts more pressure on me. When you get to the top, you have to keep working harder to keep your spot because other players are working as hard to replace you or get to the top."