How Elijah Harkless sparked OU basketball's upset of Alabama: 'We’ve got some unique talent'
NORMAN — Dave Kleckner doesn’t have to convince anyone about Elijah Harkless’ value any more.
Not when the college basketball world is seeing what Harkless is doing — on both ends, but especially the defensive end, as OU and Harkless run through a rare scheduling gauntlet of top-10 opponents.
But the Sooners keep rising to the occasion, and Harkless keeps right in the middle of it, including in Saturday’s 66-61 win over No. 9 Alabama at Lloyd Noble Center.
It was the Sooners’ fifth consecutive win and third straight over a top-10 opponent.
OU became just the third team since The Associated Press poll was introduced in 1948-49 to knock off four top-10 opponents in one calendar month and the first since North Carolina State in 1974.
Harkless was elevated into the starting lineup thanks to COVID-19 issues with the Sooners in early January, sliding into the starting lineup when Brady Manek and Jalen Hill were out with the virus.
Saturday, his role changed once again thanks to the pandemic with two OU starters, point guard Austin Reeves and Alondes Williams, out due to COVID-19 protocols.
Harkless came up with the game’s signature plays on both ends of the floor in the closing minutes.
His turnaround jumper with 19 seconds left made it a two-possession game but Harkless might not have been around to hit that shot if it wasn’t for his heads-up play with just more than two minutes remaining.
Harkless, sitting on four fouls with the Sooners ahead by one, came from behind Jaden Shackelford on a breakaway, altering the shot and helping OU get free throws on the other end.
“Usually I’m pretty good at the little chasedown block,” Harkless said. “He’s a great player going left. One of the best in the country going left. I was able to alter his shot just enough for him to miss it.”
Watching halfway across the country, Kleckner certainly wasn’t surprised.
The Etiwanda (California) High School coach has coached his share of big-time players, including Darren Collison and Jeff Ayres. But Harkless, Kleckner said, is the toughest player he’s ever coached.
“If part of your strategy in coaching is, 'We’re going to go out and get stops and make it difficult on people,' your eyes just light up when you see him play to think what he’s capable of,” Kleckner said. “I guess if you’re focusing on the other end, then maybe you overlook him.”
But Harkless was plenty overlooked. When college coaches reached out to Kleckner, he extolled Harkless’ virtues, but that didn’t lead to scholarship offers.
It wasn’t until the end of his senior season, after Etiwanda played a playoff game at Long Beach State, before Harkless got his first Division I offer.
He wound up choosing Cal State Northridge over Long Beach State.
After two years at Northridge, Harkless is now one of the top players in this season’s top college basketball conference.
Harkless was a pest from start to finish Saturday, finishing with three steals for the fourth consecutive game.
The Sooners gave Alabama fits early with defensive pressure, as OU jumped out to an 11-2 lead by forcing turnovers in bunches to start. Then the Sooners locked down along the perimeter late, forcing the Crimson Tide to miss its last eight field goals.
It wasn’t just Harkless.
Victor Iwuakor had eight rebounds and gave the Sooners toughness on the interior.
“We’ve got some unique talent on this team,” Harkless said. “People like Victor, people like Jalen. Those are great wings that can defend anybody. So when we’re able to switch aggressively and not have a mismatch, that changes a lot of things.
“Early on, they were surprised at how well we played defense.”
After their run lately, it’s getting harder for Harkless and the Sooners to surprise anyone.