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WVU basketball: Big moments nothing new to Harris

INDIANAPOLIS -- The gymnasium at Lawrence North High School, plunked in one of the city's northeast suburbs, has seen a lot through the years.

There have been state championship teams led by legendary coach Jack Keefer.

There have been celebrity college coaches in the stands, eager to extend offers to Keefer's latest stars.

There have been eventual NBA players, big like Eric Montross and Greg Oden and small like Mike Conley, Jr., and, who knows, maybe one day West Virginia's Eron Harris.

He's but a 6-foot-2, 190-pound freshman with the Mountaineers, averaging 6.2 points in 15.1 minutes per game, but enjoying an expanding role lately as a reliable player who makes key plays in important spots.

Harris played his high school basketball here, about 75 minutes southeast of Purdue, where he and WVU (8-8) will play the Big Ten's Boilermakers (9-8) at 2 p.m. Saturday in a nationally televised game on CBS.

Harris said 15 or so family members will zip up Interstate 65 to the West Lafayette campus.

He could only guess about the number of friends and fans, the ones who filled bleachers where this journey began in the fall of 2011.

A tip led WVU Coach Bob Huggins to one of Keefer's practices at that Lawrence North gym that had seen so many things, but hadn't seen something quite like what Huggins would witness.

Keefer likes to put his players through something he calls the Celtics drill. Racks each holding five basketballs are placed in five spots arching around the 3-point line, an equal distance apart from one another.

Make five at one station, move to the next.

"You just shoot around the horn until you hit 50," Keefer said.

"It takes quite a while to make 50 shots."

With Huggins watching, Harris needed 56 attempts.  

"As I understood, West Virginia didn't have too many shooters last year," Keefer said, an understatement for the Mountaineers team that set the school record for worst 3-point shooting percentage in a season. "Coach Huggins said, 'You've got a scholarship right now.' "

Harris hasn't stopped with the clutch moments since. He's done something special in each of the past three games.

The first came Jan. 9 in a road win against Texas, when the Mountaineers were passing through a late possession in a tied game and Harris sneaked into the left corner for a go-ahead 3 with 16 seconds to go. The second was Saturday's home loss to No. 16 Kansas State, when Harris rescued a possession going nowhere with a go-ahead jumper on the right baseline with 25 seconds remaining.

The third, and the best, was in Wednesday's loss at Iowa State. Harris was 4-for-4 from 3-point range in the final 10:57 and led the rally from 18 points down to tie the score with 11 seconds remaining.

"He's a big moment shooter," teammate Kevin Noreen said of Harris, who shoots a team-high 41 percent from 3-point range.

Basketball 'a way of life' in Indiana

They live for those moments in Indiana.

"High school hoops in Indiana is where it's at, man," Harris said. "Everyone knows that."

What WVU fans new to the Big 12 are learning about the passion devoted to Texas high school football and the preparedness of those players is what Harris and all the other Hoosiers know to be true about high school basketball in Indiana and in this city.

"It's just so important to these people," Keefer said. "We fill our gyms. A lot of times a kid doesn't go to a Division I school like Eron has and goes to a small Division II school. He'll have 1,000 people in the stands and feel like, 'I had more people than this when I was in high school.' It's a way of life here."

Lawrence North can squeeze about 4,000 into its stands, be it when Lawrence Central brings the rivalry across town, a nationally televised showcase for Oden and Conley, Jr., in December 2005 or a can't-miss occasion against the state's Mr. Basketball Eric Gordon and eventual runner-up North Central in 2007.

It's like that throughout the city and the state, and the fervor grows as you move away from Indianapolis.

"In those places, you scream and yell as long as you can," Keefer said.

The cities and counties that don't have the quick and easy access to distractions like the Colts, Pacers and auto racing cherish their high school basketball.

"They've got great organization and they've got really good coaching in Indiana basketball," Huggins said. "They really do coach them up and do a good job teaching them and getting them ready."

Keefer has been in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame since 2007. The year before, Sports Illustrated and USA Today named him their national high school coach of the year, something no coach in the state had ever won before.

He has four state titles, including three straight from 2004-06, and nearly 700 wins in 41 seasons, 37 of them at Lawrence North. Fifty wins came in succession across the 2006-07 seasons and that broke a state record Oscar Robertson helped set 50 years earlier.

"If you're going to go to Lawrence North, you're probably a pretty good player, or you wouldn't show up here because you wouldn't play," said Keefer, the only coach the school has ever had.

He had good models for his famed success. Keefer worked camps for 18 years for former North Carolina Coach Dean Smith. He considers Smith and former Indiana Coach Bobby Knight his greatest influences. He's mimicked them in his teachings and uses his three assistant coaches the way he saw Smith and Knight use theirs.

"When people come watch us, they say our practice is like a college practice," he said.

Harris was prepared for WVU in more ways than one, though. He called Keefer a "mini-Huggins" because of the way both stress toughness and discipline and the way they instruct their players.

"He focuses on individual work," Harris said of Keefer. "He always had us in the gym working with one of our assistant coaches.

"He was always working us out with individual stuff. He thought if we got better as individuals, we'd get better as a team."

There was tough love, too, though Keefer didn't have the treadmill that Huggins will banish players to for their miscues in practice.

"We had a floor," Harris said. "That was all he needed to make us run."

Coach and player were close and the relationship was honest and candid. Sometimes Keefer had to sting Harris to make a point.

"I used to pick on him, that's for sure," Keefer said. "But it's always easy to pick on your star."

Adjusting to the college game

Harris was supposed to be the star as a senior and Lawrence North was again expected to be one of the state's top teams. He and a teammate would go on to sign at Division I schools. Four juniors on that team should do the same including Purdue recruit Basil Smotherman.

"On paper," he said, "we had most talented team state."

Lawrence North underwhelmed from start to finish and ended up with an 8-12 record. Harris averaged 14 points, five rebounds and four assists, slight improvements on his numbers from the year before, when the Wildcats made the Class 4A sectional semifinal with a young team.

"I think the 1980s was the last time we had a losing record," said Keefer. "I couldn't hardly deal with it. He couldn't hardly deal with it. We had major and mid-major type players all on the floor at the same time and we couldn't put it together.

"I finally benched some of them and played more of the role players with Eron being the main player.

"We got to be very good at the end and won four of five, but by that point, we hadn't been very good. I think he had to get a little better through that and I think he had to grow up a little bit and realize he had to give up some things he thought he could do for the better of the team."

His freshman season in college isn't much different. Huggins has repeatedly moaned about players not being on the same page with him and likeminded Mountaineers. WVU is not the most talented team in the Big 12, but thinks it's better than its record entering the final non-conference game against the Boilermakers.

Players have trended up and down throughout the season, earning and forfeiting playing time with every win and loss, but Harris has gradually, though consistently, seen his role blossom.

"Eron plays better with good players," Keefer said. "If Eron thinks he's far superior to the people around him, he's probably going to shoot too much and drive into a crowd where there isn't room and be very impatient on offense. It's not hard to get mad at him for things like that."

That lesson learned, the players around him are better now and he sticks to simple assignments.

He creates shots. He guards his opponent or his spot in the zone. He pushes hard when he's on the floor. It hasn't been simple, but it hasn't been foreign, either.

What he's hearing now is a lot like what he heard from Keefer.

"It was a big adjustment, but it wasn't bigger than I thought it would be," Harris said. "I knew what I'd have to do."

Harris has played in every game but one and started Wednesday in place of injured freshman Terry Henderson. Most of the time lately, he's been the first player Huggins calls on to give the Mountaineers a boost early.

Harris played just eight minutes when WVU lost a 16-point lead at home against Eastern Kentucky, but rallied to win. In the four games since, he's played 15, 21, 25 and 29 minutes and he's been in there when tight games need to be decided.  

"He's got a great attitude and he gives us a shot of athleticism that we really need on this team, and he's made shots," Huggins said. "He's made a lot more shots in practice obviously than he's made in the games, but he's made shots. He's been really good for us."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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