COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Although she was one of the younger starting point guards in the Ohio Valley Conference during the 2017-18 season, Akia Harris still found success both on Tennessee Tech's squad and in the league as a whole.
She rarely stepped off the court, ending her sophomore year with an average of 34.1 minutes played per game. Her assist/turnover ratio ranked fourth in the OVC, and her assist total was ninth. Harris was the youngest player to be ranked that high in both statistical categories.
One of her best performances of the season came during Tech's second conference game in late December, when she put up a career-high 22 points and was perfect with five 3-pointers against Eastern Kentucky.
That game, played on Dec. 30, 2017, came nearly nine months to the day after Harris' first surgery to drain a blood clot that spanned almost the entire length of her left leg.
In late April at the Golden Wings Awards, Tech's annual awards ceremony for its student-athletes, Harris was announced as the 2018 Comeback Athlete of the Year. She made her comeback from something that wasn't a typical athletic injury – an ankle sprain, a concussion, a torn ACL – which made the situation scarier for her.
"Honestly, I didn't know what a blood clot was," said Harris. "You know when you're younger and you get those little brown dots on you, and they say those are blood clots? When they told me what it was, my heart started racing."
Harris began struggling to breathe toward the end of her freshman year, which she assumed was related to her asthma. But when the team returned after a two-week postseason break for spring workouts, she was still having trouble breathing and noticed her legs starting to swell.
Harris headed home to Chattanooga to spend an off-weekend with her family and noticed during her drive that her left leg had become warm to the touch. Her mom, Adriane, a nurse, decided to rush her to the emergency room. Harris was diagnosed with a blood clot from her left thigh all the way down to her ankle.
She needed two surgeries to drain the blood clot. The first, scheduled for March 29, inserted a catheter into her leg and suctioned out 80 percent of the blood clot. During the second surgery on the following day, she stayed in the hospital's ICU overnight, keeping her leg stationary while tPA (tissue plasminogen activator, a protein that helps to break down blood clots) dripped into her leg. The next morning, Harris' surgeon suctioned out the last remnants of the blood clot.
Harris had the full support of her teammates throughout her surgeries. Head coach Kim Rosamond delayed her trip to Dallas for the WBCA Coaches Convention and Final Four to be with Harris as she prepared for her surgeries.
"That meant the world to me," said Harris.
While the offensive and defensive schemes are taught daily in a Kim Rosamond practice, life lessons are taught just as heavily.
"One of our daily sayings is 'You find strength in the struggle,' and Akia was a pillar of strength during this difficult time," said Rosamond. "While it was heartbreaking to see her go through something like this, especially at such a young age, I saw her display a strength that you don't find in many 19-year-olds. Akia and I already had a really good relationship off the court, but she and I grew even closer and built a deep trust that has carried over to the court. Her mom and dad, Steve, are two of the most solid, grounded people I have ever been around, and the family's strength is a testimony to their unwavering faith in God."
Harris also missed a good chunk of the spring 2017 semester while at home recovering from her surgeries. School remained a priority though, as she continued to work with her professors, women's basketball academic advisor Ashlee Kiser and assistant athletic director for academics and student welfare Dr. Lance Jasitt while away from the Tech campus in Cookeville.
"I couldn't have asked for a better group of professors to have worked with because they were very supportive and helpful, from emailing me my work to helping me to prepare for the tests and exams I missed," said Harris.
Harris couldn't participate in any basketball activities until after September 25 when she stopped taking the prescription medication Eliquis (Eliquis reduces the risk of forming blood clots in your legs). This gave her less than a month and a half to prepare for Tech's 2017-18 season-opening exhibition game on November 5.
She didn't miss a beat, scoring 13 points that day and going on to start all 29 of Tech's regular-season games.
"I can't think of a player more deserving than Akia for the Comeback Athlete of the Year," said Rosamond. "When I go back to this time last year, Akia was just recovering from her surgery, and there were just so many unknowns. We talk all the time in our program about life not being about the uncontrollable events that happen to you but about your response to those events. Akia inspired me with her positive response to a very scary situation. The grace that Akia displayed the last year is a direct result of her faith and the young woman her parents have raised her to be.
"She had every reason to return to campus in July out of shape, looking for excuses to get out of workouts or not prepared to be a leader, but she did the exact opposite. She came back in less than four months off major surgery in outstanding shape, and she continued to work on her game as much as the doctors allowed. Her heart and determination motivated every single member of our team to do more and be more this past summer."
An initial idea for surgery involved inserting a cage in her groin area, which wouldn't have allowed Harris to play basketball again, let alone do what she did her sophomore year.
"It's very rewarding," said Harris. "I thank God because I worked so hard to come back. I worked twice as hard because it was really hard for me to walk again and run again because it hurt so bad. Just to see myself come back and be able to play like that again, I just thank God."
Harris actually improved in nearly every area of her game from freshman to sophomore year. Among her improved stats:
- Scoring (8.1 points per game to 8.6)
- Minutes played (30.1 minutes per game to 34.0)
- Field goal percentage (32.0 percent to 36.8 percent)
- 3-point field goal percentage (27.7 percent to 39.2 percent)
- Turnovers (94 to 69)
- Assist/turnover ratio (1.3 to 1.5)
She also earned a GPA of over 3.0 in the spring 2018 semester, half of which was spent finishing up the basketball season.
"To see one of your players go through what she did physically and then improve from one season to the next in nearly every statistical category is almost unimaginable, but it is also a credit to who Akia Harris is as a person," said Rosamond. "She embodies everything we want our program to be about and stand for, and it has been an honor to be her coach. I forget sometimes that she just finished her sophomore year because in minutes played, she is probably more like a junior or senior. I am beyond grateful that I get to enjoy this ride with her for two more seasons, and I can't wait to see how she writes the last chapter of her career at Tech."