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Harper still a big factor for Bulldogs

By By Tony Krausz/assistant sports editor
March 21, 2004
ORLANDO, Fla. The ritual has become so familiar that it no longer seems odd for Mississippi State University.
When the Bulldogs starting lineup is announced the five players make their way through the human tunnel of their teammates high-fiving all the way, until they get to the end where they are sent out onto the court with a chest bump by a young man in street clothes.
The thing is, that young man in street clothes was supposed to be one of those starters. He was supposed to be the one receiving the chest bump instead of giving it.
He was supposed to enjoy the cheers of a team that went 25-2 during the regular season, won its first Southeastern Conference title outright since President John F. Kennedy was in the White House. He wasn't supposed to be the one cheering from the sidelines.
But that is the hand that was dealt to MSU's Ontario Harper, after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during individual workouts on Sept. 11.
Harper, who averaged 7.4 points and 4.9 rebounds per game as a sophomore in 2003, underwent surgery on Sept. 26, which kept him out for the season.
Harper wasn't the only one who had to get used to seeing himself in street clothes instead of a uniform on game day.
MSU guard Timmy Bowers, who is usually the last Bulldog introduced and who gets a little more height off the ground when he bumps chests with Harper, became the team's only returning starter after Harper went down in September.
Bowers was in the gym the day Harper injured his knee, and he has watched the junior forward make the transition from starter to the team's No. 1 fan from the bench.
MSU head coach Rick Stansbury admitted that he did think about playing Harper this season.
Harper started practicing with the team the week before its Feb. 7 regular-season game with archrival Ole Miss.
Harper, who was the team's second-leading rebounder last season, would have been a boon to the Bulldogs, who only had a bench that went about two players deep.
But the final decision was made to hold Harper out for the entire season and apply for a medical redshirt to get him a fifth year of eligibility.
There would have been plenty of questions about Harper's role on the team if he had returned late in the season.
His minutes would have probably been extremely limited, possibly only two to four per game until he returned to game shape. He also would have most likely come off the bench, after starting all 31 games last season.
MSU is still pursuing a medical redshirt for Harper's missed season this year.
So with a future that may hold two or only one more year of college basketball, Harper is just enjoying his ride with the team this year from the best seat in the house n on the bench, next to his teammates.