How freshman Madison Booker kept No. 12 Texas on course after Rori Harmon’s injury

The first basket Madison Booker ever made was on a plastic basketball hoop gifted by her father, Carlos. When she grew to play on a bigger goal outside, and childhood tosses developed into one-on-one battles, Carlos Booker often secured victory by blocking his daughter’s shot.

It was an easy feat for the 6-foot-10 former center at Southern Miss who stood even taller to Booker as a child than he does to her now 6-1 frame. When Booker told him it was cheating and unfair, her father replied with a useful lifelong lesson.

The game’s not fair. Just get through it.

“That has definitely made me the player that I am now getting through adversity,” Booker told Yahoo Sports.

It’s a lesson the Texas freshman tapped into at the end of December when junior point guard Rori Harmon, an All-American honorable mention and Player of the Year contender, tore her ACL in practice. The Longhorns were an undefeated 13-0, ranked fifth in the country and an early favorite for Final Four contention with an impressive victory over Connecticut on their résumé.

Already a freshman of the year candidate at small forward, Booker was thrust into the starting point guard position one week before facing then-undefeated Baylor in the Big 12 opener. Since the switch the Longhorns (19-3, 6-3 Big 12) have only lost three games by a combined 13 points in a clear sign that Booker, named a Wooden Award Top 20 finalist for the nation’s best player, has done more than just get through.

“It’s obvious that having the ball in Madison Booker’s hands is a pretty good thing,” Texas head coach Vic Schaefer told Yahoo Sports. “It’s really allowed her to flourish her game, to really expand, and she’s got a lot of freedom with me. But at the time when Rori went down, there was no question in my mind who was going to get that call.”

No. 12 Texas faces No. 13 Baylor (16-3, 5-3) on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) and No. 2 Kansas State (20-2, 9-1) on Sunday (2 p.m. ET, FS1) in one of their toughest stretches of the season. It will play a large role in the Longhorns’ chances at the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, as well as seeding in the NCAA tournament. Booker is dealing with a nagging hamstring injury that kept her out of a win against Cincinnati, but is likely to play.

Booker’s preseason ‘wall’ assists development

Booker’s experience running the offense was limited, but not absent. Schaefer saw her play it in AAU and at Germantown High School in Mississippi. Booker is hesitant to put too much weight on that experience since high school is “like a free-for-all” where everyone plays a little of everything.

What proved the most beneficial was reps she took in preseason while Harmon rehabbed an ankle injury. That’s when she said she hit her biggest wall that helped prepare her for full-time duties.

“I was overwhelmed,” Booker said. “I didn’t know what to do. I was really rushing. The game was not slowed down for me. It was kind of fast. I was having turnovers, I was making mistakes. And I wasn’t really running the team properly.”

Booker averaged 11.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists through her first 13 games while starting at small forward and playing occasional point guard minutes when Harmon was on the bench. Her coming-out party was a 20-point performance against UConn on Dec. 3 at her natural position — until she dropped 25 on Baylor in her first Big 12 game and 29 facing Oklahoma last week.

“I didn’t expect me to do this well at the PG position, honestly,” Booker said. “Running a team is so different than scoring on the wing. It’s a whole new — you just look at the game totally different.”

How Harmon helped Booker adjust to PG duties

That Baylor matchup was a rough start for Booker, who Schaefer sent to the bench early because of turnovers. It was her second game starting at the point after easing into it against Jackson State.

“If you’re a backup in a certain position, that’s one thing,” Schaefer said. “But when your starting position is a completely different position [than your natural one] and you’re a freshman — just learning that [first] position is hard enough, right? Then all of a sudden you’re thrown over there as a point guard, now you gotta learn that position. Plus you’ve got to make sure everybody else knows where they’re supposed to be.

“And that’s really a challenge, especially for a freshman to hold people accountable, get them in the right spot, all that. [To] understand the timing, angles of passes.”

The first to approach Booker on the bench in the Baylor contest was Harmon, a three-year starter with coaching aspirations. She told the young player to forget the past, keep her head up and play her game. Booker went back in and took over, pulling Texas within two possessions by the final buzzer.

“Coach Harmon, she sees the court just so well. She sees the reads,” Booker said. “That’s why I go to her a lot. I can ask her something and and I’ll run it and it’ll work. That’s just how smart she is. Her IQ is off the charts.”

“Rori is constantly just talking to her and in tune with her and just helping me with helping her understand the role of being a point guard,” Schaefer said. “[Booker] has really taken advantage of the opportunity and she’s put our team on her back and led us and directed us.”

Texas forward Madison Booker (35) scores against Baylor during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Austin, Texas, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Texas forward Madison Booker (35) scores against Baylor during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Austin, Texas, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Texas thriving under Booker’s guidance

Texas is averaging 74.9 points per game in Big 12 play, the best of the conference and up from 70.3 (fifth) last season. That’s without Harmon and senior all-conference forward DeYona Gaston (ankle injury) available. It’s a “great indicator” for Schaefer of Booker’s success and talents in decision making, passing ability, floor vision and basketball IQ.

Since moving positions, Booker is averaging increased production with 20.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, six assists and 1.7 steals per game. Her scoring average is second-best in the conference and she’s shooting 47.1% overall and 90.4% from the free throw line on a second-best 6.5 attempts per game.

Her 5.6 assists per game are tied with Iowa State’s Emily Ryan for best in the Big 12. She had her first double-double with 15 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists against West Virginia, one of the conference’s stingiest defenses, and has dished at least six assists in six of nine games.

“She enjoys the pass as much as the basket, but she is not afraid to take the big shot,” Schaefer said. “And I am not afraid to put the ball in her hands to take the big shot. That’s pretty good for a freshman.”

Booker shortlisted for national awards

As Booker continues to develop the mind of a point guard, she’s reviewing film daily with coaches seeking any way to be better the next time out. Her dad played plenty of basketball film for her as a child covering the decades between Cheryl Miller, Sheryl Swoopes, Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart.

Booker, who hadn’t heard of Miller until her dad played the tape, is a top-10 finalist for the Cheryl Miller award for the nation’s best small forward. She is the only freshman on the list, and one of three freshmen named to the Wooden late-season watchlist along with Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo and USC’s JuJu Watkins.

It is high praise in a season dominated by highly talented freshmen, and all the more impressive Booker is doing it outside of her natural position.

Schaefer, a two-time national coach of the year, envisions more accolades coming. He said Booker, Harmon and Victoria Vivians are the three most competitive and impactful freshmen Schaefer has coached in his 38-year career.

Harmon, a 5-6 guard, earned All-American honorable mention by the Associated Press and Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, becoming the first freshman at Texas to do it. She was named Most Outstanding Player of the 2022 Big 12 Championship won by the Longhorns.

Vivians, a 6-1 WNBA guard who played on Schaefer’s back-to-back runner-up national championship teams at Mississippi State in 2017-18, also earned an AP All-America honorable mention as a freshman and set program records.

But the differentiator with Booker is she is farther along as a passer and ball-handler, he said. And every day when she taps Harmon for advice or asks questions of coaches in film sessions is another day she improves on that.

“That’s what makes her great. That’s why she’s going to be a four-time All-American at Texas,” Schaefer said. “Because she cares and she wants to get better.”

Even through adversity — like changing starting positions on the fly or altering an angle to avoid her Dad’s outstretched hands.

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