There have been two women’s basketball players in the 28-year history of the Missouri Valley Conference to earn All-American honors.
The first was Wanda Ford at Drake, then, of course, Claflin native Jackie Stiles at Missouri State.
Those are once-in-a-century players for Valley schools. The chances of another coming along are astronomical, so that’s why it seemed like hyperbole when Wichita State coach Jody Adams declared before the season that sophomore Alex Harden was capable of becoming the third to join that list.
How could anyone expect Harden, who hasn’t even made the Valley’s all-conference team, to be selected as one of the best in the nation when schools such as Connecticut, Tennessee and Notre Dame seemingly have a stranglehold on such players?
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But to Alex Harden this is not hyperbole.
This is the journey to greatness.
Whether its in her soft Southern twang or a stern shout, Adams has the ability to capture the attention of players with every syllable.
So when Adams said her budding sophomore star could be an All-American, Harden hung onto every word. Once she processed it, she realized the magnitude of the statement.
“Naturally I put pressure on myself,” Harden, “but when she added that All-American thing, it did (add more pressure).”
What came next was admittedly one of the worst stretches in Harden’s career. WSU was 6-6 and the only thing looking more pedestrian the team itself was Harden’s 34-percent shooting and averages of 6.8 points and 2.8 assists.
“I thought I had to play a perfect game,” Harden said. “It was overwhelming because you think you can’t make a mistake because I’m supposed to be this kind of player. But everybody makes mistakes. It’s how you bounce back from them.”
Harden quit worrying about a turnover or missed shot and started maturing into the player Adams envisioned. Entering Friday’s game against Illinois State, Harden is shooting 51 percent and averaging 11.6 points and 4.4 assists in seven Valley games, all WSU wins.
Chynna Turner and Jessica Diamond, the two seniors in charge of WSU’s resurgence, both learned to play the game in Dallas.
Growing up against some of the best athletes in the country, they’re qualified to speak to Harden’s athleticism.
“I’m telling you, if she was in Houston, Texas, she would be one of the greatest,” Turner said. “And I’ve played against Brittany Griner, Kelsey Bones and Sydney Colson. She’s right up there.”
Griner’s name is familiar, but the other two aren’t bad company — Bones and Colson were on Texas A&M’s national championship team and Colson is playing in the WNBA.
Harden was blessed with a natural grace in playing the game, but many of the intricacies that make her special were self-taught watching older men play.
That’s where she developed the touch and the feel to the game that can’t be taught. And that’s what gives Harden a chance to be a player that can take over a game someday.
“The one thing that I’ve noticed with Alex is that she plays with the ball too much,” said Diamond, a good offensive player herself. “I told her that all she needs to do is one move then explode because then she’s gone. She has the chance to be really special.”
Adams doesn’t regret going public with her thoughts on Harden.
She acknowledges the pressure heaped upon her might have been too heavy at first, but Adams points to how Harden has responded since as evidence of her realizing her potential. Fulfilling it won’t be easy.
“Alex is truly in control of her own greatness,” Adams said.
Harden has every physical tool imaginable, but her journey to All-American status won’t be complete until she masters the mental aspect of the game.
“You see great athletes everywhere, but only a select few become All-Americans,” Adams said. “They become that by having an unbelievable mindset and a toughness that’s just way beyond what you can explain. They can block anything out. They can flip a bad possession into a good one just because they change their mindset.”
Adams believes Harden can be that type of player.
But does Harden herself believe?
“Yeah, I do,” Harden responded when asked if she can be an All-American.
“It’s going to take never settling and a lot of hard work, never allowing mediocre to be OK. Just because I get it done, that’s not good enough. I want to get it done the right way.”