By: ASHLEY SCOBY
Linnae Harper already has a gold medal and more accolades than most anyone her age. She is a McDonald’s All-American, played on the Under-19 Team USA in Lithuania and comes to Kentucky as one of the Cats’ highest-ranked recruits in history.
But something is still missing for Harper, because something is still missing from the college program she is now a part of: a Final Four and a national championship.
Harper comes in as part of a three-person freshman class, joining Marion County, Ky., stars Makayla Epps and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers. She says this class can be the bridge between the Elite Eight and Final Four for the Kentucky program.
“We all have the same goal,” Harper said of the freshman class. “We want to win and we want to be better. … With us three and our talents, we can be the missing piece for Kentucky. Hopefully we can take it to the next level.”
Harper doesn’t just bring a McDonald’s All-American badge to Kentucky, but a boatload of talent and experience. A native of Chicago, Harper grew up playing against current Duke freshman Jabari Parker, someone who was one of the most highly-regarded recruits in the nation. Playing against boys from such a young age has made her “tougher,” she said.
Harper is also a lefty, but is somewhat ambidextrous. Growing up, she started out as a right-handed shooter, but eventually changed her mechanics.
“I actually write with my right hand but I shoot with my left,” she said. “It’s weird. I started out shooting with my right hand but one day I just started shooting with my left hand and I started making shots so I just switched over.”
For many, switching their shooting hand is a huge process, but for Harper it was a seamless transition. Her sense of ease with that transition is something that is reflected on the basketball court, as well: A slasher and a high-energy talent, Harper fits right in with the Kentucky style of play.
“It’s very intense but I like it,” she said of Kentucky’s practice so far. “That’s one thing about Kentucky: I like the intensity of the defense. I like how they turn teams around and have the up-tempo game. Also, the players and how dedicated they are to the team. … I just love Kentucky.”
To Harper, the benefit she receives on the court from being at Kentucky is one thing. But how she is benefiting off the court in Lexington is something that means even more to her.
“(Coach Matthew Mitchell) is really passionate about his players and the system and he really puts in a lot of work to make sure we have what we need,” she said. “It’s not all about basketball. It’s about being honest, being disciplined and being a better person in life. I think that’s one thing that attracted me to Kentucky. I mean, I want to be a better basketball player, but I also want to be a better person.”
Harper’s overseas experience this summer has also helped her along the road to becoming a better person. As part of the Under-19 Team USA, she contributed to America’s gold medal performance in the FIBA U-19 World Championships in Lithuania.
Once again, however, that time outside of the United States was not just about basketball for Harper.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to play overseas and meet different people,” she said. “Just getting adjusted to their culture and eating their food. I really like how much people admire people from the United States, and it really made me grateful. We have things that a lot of people don’t. So I just enjoyed it and made the best of it. … I had a wonderful experience.”
Harper will use that experience, as well as her unique talents on the court, to add that something “extra” Kentucky has been missing the past couple of years. Mitchell has not been shy about his goal for the program of making the transition from consistent Elite Eight appearances to a Final Four. The missing piece to make that transition could very well be Harper.
“I want to be a better player,” she said. “I’m really working hard towards being SEC Freshman of the Year. That’s also one of my goals. Really just getting better every day and being that extra piece of intensity to get to the Final Four.”