DENVER — Demonte Harper headed to Morehead State University more than four years ago not knowing much about the school or its basketball history.
Now, he has boosted the Eagles back into the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. The Nashville native and Whites Creek product averaged 26 points and 8.5 rebounds in his hometown two weeks ago to earn Ohio Valley Conference Tournament MVP honors and lift Morehead back into the NCAA Tournament. The 13th-seeded Eagles open the tournament against No. 4 seed Louisville at 12:40 p.m. on Thursday at the Pepsi Center.
While Kenneth Faried has grabbed all the headlines as the nation’s leading rebounder (14.5 per game), Harper has quietly developed into the Eagles’ second-best player. The 6-foot-4, 185-pound senior guard averages 16 points and has a team-high 113 assists.
“You can’t speak enough about this man,” Faried said of Harper at Wednesday afternoon’s pre-practice press conference. “Everybody keeps talking about me, me, me. For him to step up at tournament time and become the MVP, I mean, it just helps me even more because it takes a lot of pressure off of me and puts some on him. I don’t know if he wants it or not, but it helps our team.”
Harper landed at Morehead State in large part because of who he knew.
Former LaVergne High coach Barry Wortman joined the Morehead State staff as an assistant in 2006 when head coach Donnie Tyndall took over the program. Having coached against Harper, Wortman quickly contacted him about the possibility of playing for the Eagles — and he was persistent.
“He talked to me before the season started and said, ‘I got the job at Morehead State and I think you can play Division I basketball. You’ll have an opportunity to play,” Harper said. “He just kept talking to me throughout the season and made me feel comfortable about making this decision. ... He played a big part in why I came to Morehead.” Wortman has since returned to Tennessee. He left in 2009 and became head coach at Oak Ridge High. Harper continued to flourish and increased his scoring average from 11.9 points last year.
The adjustment to college basketball wasn’t easy, though. He was thrust into the point guard position — a spot he had never played — his sophomore year. It didn’t go as well as Harper hoped.
“I kind of struggled and we went 0-6,” Harper said. “That experience helped me out for playing point the whole season.”
He has started all 33 games at the point guard position this year and credits this past offseason as a reason the transition back was a smooth one. Over the summer, he returned to Nashville, and brought Faried — a native of New Jersey with him. Harper’s stepfather worked with both of them, pushing them in offseason training.
“Going into our senior season, we wanted all our hard work that we put in to pay off for us,” Harper said. “We really believed that and now we are back in the NCAA Tournament.”
Harper isn’t the only Nashville product at the Pepsi Center or in the NCAA Tournament — or on Morehead State’s roster.
Centennial grad Drew Kelly is a starting forward for the Eagles. The 6-7, 235-pound redshirt freshman, who transferred from Miami (Ohio), is averaging 5.3 points and 4.4 rebounds. Hillsboro product Arthur McMillan has played in 25 games off the bench. The 6-6 forward is averaging 1.1 points in his freshman season.
Across the hall, in the Richmond locker room was Kevin Smith, a Murfreesboro Riverdale product who played against Harper in high school. Smith has blossomed at Richmond, averaging four points and 4.2 rebounds in his senior year as the Spiders play Vanderbilt on Thursday after the Morehead State-Louisville game. The 6-5, 200-pound senior has started in 16 games, including all three in last week’s Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament.
A 1,000-point scorer at Riverdale, Harper didn’t get a look from Middle Tennessee State. In fact, Richmond was the only school that offered him a scholarship.
“They made me feel like I was at home. Like I didn’t even leave Nashville,” Smith said. “Richmond is definitely good at finding guys that are under the radar. They have built this program on guys who are under the radar… They found us and were able to put it together and make something of it.”
Other local players in the NCAA Tournament:
• Brendan Connolly, Father Ryan
Princeton, sophomore, center, 6-11, 252 pounds, 3.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg
• Darnell Wilks, Pioneer Christian Academy
Cincinnati, senior, forward, 6-7, 205 pounds, 3.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg
• Holden Mobley, Montgomery Bell Academy
Belmont, freshman, guard, 6-3, 200 pounds, redshirting this year
• Gerald Robinson, Martin Luther King
Georgia, Tennessee State transfer, junior, guard, 6-1, 180 pounds, 12.2 ppg, 133 assists
• John Jenkins, Station Camp
Vanderbilt, sophomore, guard, 6-4, 215 pounds, 19.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg
• Chris Meriwether, Father Ryan
Vanderbilt, senior, guard, 6-0, 180 pounds, 0.2 ppg, 0.3 rpg