By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It was still early on a Sunday afternoon during which the entire nation’s eyes were focused on New Orleans and the Super Bowl, a West Virginia University women’s basketball game seeming to be of little or no meaning to anyone who was outside the Coliseum, where it was being played.
Coach Mike Carey’s Mountaineers had gotten off to a simply dreadful start, one that would see Oklahoma double its point output in the early going at 22-11, as he made a number of substitutions during a timeout.
As his team gathered around him, he turned and looked straight into the intense eyes of Jess Harlee, a junior reserve he had just inserted into the game, and offered this bit of advice.
“C’mon, Jess, get ’em going,” he said.
He knew if anyone could do it, it was Jess Harlee, who brings so much energy to the game that one wonders why Ray Lewis and Alex Rodriguez just don’t begin dating her.
She, at least, has not been declared illegal.
Harlee understood Carey’s message, for it’s one she has heard before. And, in truth, he wasn’t asking her to do anything special.
Just be Jess Harlee.
“I knew I had to step it up on defense and get some easy steals to get the offense going,” she said.
“It comes naturally. I’ve always been that player who dove in the bleachers, gets on the ground, has bruises all over my body,” she said.
That’s how she plays the game, although she admits she isn’t quite the same as she goes through life.
For example, when asked if she was the first one to class, volunteering to answer every question, she simply laughed and said, “No, I’m usually last to class, trying to sleep as late as I can.”
But on the court she’s a difference maker.
Some people, of course, make the difference with their abilities. They run faster, jump higher, have quicker reflexes, better depth perception.
Then there are some who simply do it by trying harder, by motivating themselves and those around them.
Teams need both kinds, and the hustler may be even more important for they are consistently driving everyone around them to try harder, do more, be better.
“One thing you know from Jess is you will get energy,” Carey said. “We know that going in. It’s good to know you have someone who will play hard.”
In this game, Harlee came in and put shackles on Aaryn Ellenberg, an Oklahoma scorer who had gotten off to a huge start before Harlee began harassing her, bothering her with her height, quickness and relentless pressure.
“She is a great player, has a quick first step. My goal was to not let her catch it; then I didn’t have to defend her,” Harlee said.
Long of arm and tireless, Harlee has a knack of getting into the passing lane and stealing the ball, pulling off three in this game and turning them into fast breaks. But even more important than that, she was disrupting the Oklahoma offense, which wasn’t sure which way to go with each pass.
“I thought she was great,” Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said.
The thing that Harlee does best is play the kind of game Carey preaches, a defense-first game that is built on hustle and effort.
He isn’t trying to look pretty out there. He wants to bang and run and intimidate, and that is what Harlee can do.
And bringing her off the bench gives him a wonderful alternative to add energy to the team at a time when it is sapping, eight or 10 minutes into the game or halfway through the second half, someone to inspire them to go harder down the stretch.
That is sometimes more important than points.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.