In the early stages of her first year as coach of the Coppin State women’s basketball program in 2020-21, Laura Harper frequently lost her voice. She seemed to overcome that habit until last weekend, when the raspiness returned after she and her new team at Towson had played back-to-back games at the Fort Myers Tip-Off in Fort Myers, Florida.
“It’s crazy because in my first year of coaching, I was just screaming too much, and I was told, ‘You’ve got to use your diaphragm,’” she said after an 81-70 loss to No. 14 Maryland on Saturday. “I guess it’s safe to say that I have not yet figured out how to use my diaphragm.”
Harper’s voice has already gained near-legendary status among the Tigers. Redshirt junior shooting guard Kyle Kornegay-Lucas marveled at her coach’s ability to make herself heard during games.
“At the Saint Francis game [on Nov. 19], the gym was pretty small, and they had a loud band,” she said. “But during the timeouts, you could hear her the whole time. … It is impressive.”
After an equally as admirable start, the Tigers have stalled. A three-game winning streak to open the season has been followed by three losses in four games.
On Wednesday night, visiting Morgan State defeated Towson, 76-48, at SECU Arena. The 28-point margin was the program’s worst since a 100-52 drubbing at North Carolina State on Nov. 15, 2021.
The up-and-down nature might not be shocking considering the players and Harper are still learning about one another, senior forward Anissa Rivera said.
“Obviously, it’s not going to be perfect when we first start playing together,” she said. “We’ll be good though.”
When she agreed in April to fill the vacancy created by Diane Richardson’s decision to leave for Temple, Harper — who had coached Coppin State for two seasons, led last year’s squad to its first winning campaign 2013-14 and was named the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s Coach of the Year — knew she had a limited window to make an impression with Towson players still reeling from Richardson’s departure.
“I think trying to harvest trust in 24 hours with some people who had been recruited for three or four years or had relationships for over 10 years and me coming in one day and trying to convince them — yeah, that was very challenging,” Harper conceded.
Despite her best efforts, a pair of starters in senior point guard and McDonogh graduate Aleah Nelson (16.6 points, 5.3 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game last season) and junior shooting guard Tarriyonna Gary (8.2 points and 3.5 rebounds) and a key reserve in senior forward Rayne Tucker (6.2 points and 5.4 rebounds) elected to follow Richardson to the Owls. And another starter in junior forward Allie Kubek (14.6 points and 6.2 rebounds) went to Maryland.
If the transfers initially pained the players who remained, they also offered them a fresh perspective.
“I definitely think it gave others an opportunity,” Kornegay-Lucas said. “I think a lot of us were like, ‘This is my opportunity to show myself and show what I can do on the court.’”
Kornegay-Lucas has immediately benefitted from the chance. The Sixth Player of the Year in the Colonial Athletic Association last winter and a Virginia transfer who averaged 8.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 steals, Kornegay-Lucas leads the Tigers in all four categories (17.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.4 steals).
In addition, graduate student shooting guard Skye Williams is enjoying career highs in both points (8.6) and rebounds (3.1), and freshman India Johnston has come off the bench to chip in 7.9 points per game.
Both Rivera and Kornegay-Lucas credited Harper with the players’ development. They pointed out that Harper takes more of a hands-on approach to practices compared to what Richardson did.
“Coach Rich is Coach Rich, but I like how Coach Harper always wants us at 10 [out of 10 in intensity] whoever we’re playing against,” said Rivera, who is averaging 10.8 points and 6.2 rebounds. “... Everything’s a challenge when you’re playing the game of basketball, but it’s a challenge in a good way. You’re trying to be the best and trying to be the better teammate for everybody.”
Harper said the transition from the Eagles to the Tigers has been aided by her relationships with men’s basketball coach Pat Skerry and volleyball coach Don Metil. She said Skerry texts her encouragement before every game, and she has attended volleyball matches to observe Metil, who has guided the program to four consecutive CAA championships.
“I want to be around people that are winners,” she said. “So I want to learn from and stay around their programs.”
Harper admitted her high standards stem from her days of playing at Maryland, where, as a starting sophomore forward, she contributed to the 2006 squad that won the NCAA title. Her former coach, Brenda Frese, said she is thrilled for her protege.
“We were able to win the national championship here in four years, and Laura was a part of that and knows what that looks like,” she said. “I would never count Laura Harper out.”
Princeton at Towson
Monday, 7 p.m.