(photo: Mississippi State Athletics)
Jon Wiener 1 ON 1 with Ontario Harper
T.J. Ford in Dallas. The Butler game. And an apartment NCAA dream come true.
Mississippi State veteran Ontario Harper remembers March Madness
You walk into a team with Derek Zimmerman and Timmy Bowers, Mario Austin….what’s it like joining that group with guys like that?
It’s overwhelming really. It wasn’t that bad to adapt to because I had actually gone to prep school first so I had already dealt with kids from all different backgrounds and playing styles. But it’s kind of overwhelming at first. Then you just learn to gel and see that everybody’s on the same skill level.
So it’s your sophomore year, y’all are a No.3 seed and you get T.J. Ford and Texas, in Dallas. Was it a thing in your mind and with the team, “Hey, we’re a three seed and now we have to go play Texas in their backyard?”
You talk about it and then once it gets closer, you’re just like, “Hey, it’s over now. So, we got to treat it like it’s The Hump.” And that was what a lot of us tried to say….but it was like a home game for them. It was a big hype up of T.J. Ford and that crew and what not. It was a big-time game for us and I think the guys were focused. But we came up just a little bit on the short end of the stick.
What do you remember about playing in your first NCAA tournament action? You played 21 minutes in the game, had five shots. What was that like for you?
Oh man! It was off the wall. It was almost like coming out of the tunnel at the Hump for the first time with ten thousand people in it after playing at Clinton. But once you settle in there and get your first air-ball out of the way (laughs), the nerves calm down and then you kind of feel like it is just like any other basketball game.
You guys get back the next year and you’re a five seed. And I don’t know if at that time, that whole 5-12 upset was starting to be a thing. But what did you guys think about Butler, honestly?
I mean, we come out with our guys that are really playing on a high level on both ends. We had high hopes and it’s kind of, we were I guess too cocky in a way, where you felt like we would come in there and take care of this thing. But it didn’t come down to that. When the game was over with, it was just like, man, it was surreal. Like, “this can’t be right. We got to have like four or five more minutes on the clock.”
…..you would bring up a game like that because that game haunted me. I had a chance to get a steal at the end. The guy is holding me and it goes between my legs to him and he finally makes the shot at a crucial time. It’s just one of those where you wish there was more time on the clock, and then you realize there wasn’t.
What’s it like to see the seniors….I mean a guy like a Derek Zimmerman for that to be the end of his career?
It was rough. You want those guys to go out…you want to get farther than you had the year before, and you want to try to at least try to get to the Final Four. But you don’t want it to end like that with them.
You got another chance your last year. You’re a No.9 seed and you put 93 points on Stanford in a game that was supposed to be a good matchup. What was it like for y’all as a team to really just put it all together in the tournament?
Oh man. It was an awesome feeling, and we went through a lot of highs and lows with that team. So for us to put it together against a team like Stanford…Winsome (Frazier) had an amazing game and Lawrence (Roberts) had an awesome game as well. It was just like we had a mission. We came in, we accomplished the mission, we did what we wanted to do and got ready to match up with Duke.
And so what’s your mindset going into Duke?
I couldn’t even sleep. I mean it’s something you live for. It’s something you sit out in the yard and pretend that you’re playing against Duke. Then me, and Tim (Bowers) and Mario (Austin) and Lincoln Smith and all of us would sit around the apartment all the time and be like, “Man, if we played Duke in the Hump, I know we’re killing them!” When we actually got that match-up that night, I couldn’t sleep. And Tim and (Derrick Zimmerman) and all of them called me. And so it was just like they were in my heart. I was like, “Now I’m ready. I can’t wait.”
And then you kind of you made up for them in that game. I mean you went off.
Oh man. It was just one of those moments where you just feel like “whoever’s in front of me, I can go score a basket.” And it just felt like that basket was so big. And I was just playing with all my energy. It was just all energy and heart.
What was it like for you when it came to an end in the NCAA Tournament? What do you remember your emotions being?
It felt like the life got sucked out of me. It’s like, “Man, this is really over.” Like, “Ain’t no coming back next year,” or anything like that. It was tough. Took a little while for me to get over it. But like they say, “Life goes on.” So life goes on. But it was a tough one for me.
I have to imagine you still think from time to time though about all those buckets you gave Duke.
Oh man, all the time! People come up to me and they talk about it. And it just makes me feel like I’m ready to go put that uniform back on.
The majority of people who play Division I basketball never get to play in the NCAA Tournament. For you to get that chance so many times and be a part of that….What does that mean to you?
That means a lot. It’s something I cherish…..It makes it feel like your career was worth it, where you had worked for from the beginning. That was number one, “We want to get to the NCAA Tournament.” It’s not the SEC Championship. It’s, “We got to get to the NCAA Tournament.” That’s what everybody wants to get to, and so all those running sessions and bear crawls and suicides, it made it all worthwhile.
If you can put your finger on it… What would y’all have maybe done differently year to year throughout the week to change things and get to that Sweet 16?
I know we played hard and I just wish we kept the energy and the defense and stuff like that for the whole 40 minutes instead of (pauses)….games are 40 minutes. They’re not 39, 39.5…it was a full 40. So I just wish we could have put all of it together for a whole 40 minutes instead of just maybe 38 or 37 of them.
You guys (at St. Andrews) have been in the Big House and obviously you and the staff’s doing a great job over there, you and (head coach) Brian (Cronin) and the guys. So does anything kind of carry over from all those experiences?
A lot of it. Staying focused, that’s the big thing. You got to communicate. You got to always be talking. You got to want it more than the person in front of you. Those are all the things that I learned when I got to Mississippi State, ….that’s what we’re trying to get our guys to understand: it’s not me, it’s we. All I talk about is defense, rebounding, the little stuff. That’s what made me. That’s why a lot of people remember me. So like I tell them, “Yeah, everybody remembers the person that scores. But that person that’s taking the charge and getting rebounds and defending, they’re going to want to know who that guy is too.”