Dayton’s Alex Harris looks to drive past a Duquense defender during a game this season at UD Arena. CONTRIBUTED

Tom Archdeacon: ‘Lil Baby Doll’ Alex Harris comes up big for Dayton Flyers

“Lil Baby Doll.”

You can bet that’s not the image the Saint Louis Billikens have of Alex Harris, but it’s how her older sister remembered her a couple of afternoons ago.

“I always had wanted a little sister, though actually one a little closer to my age so I could play with her,” Shayla Wright said. “I’m nine years older than her and with our mom raising us on her own and working, I was like a mom to Alex. She was my Lil Baby Doll.”

Sandra Wright agreed: “I worked two jobs. I always had a regular eight-hour job and then I took a second one cleaning offices, working in a department store, all kinds of things.

“Shayla pretty much raised Alex. She was always carrying her around. And as Alex got a little older, she was like a shadow to her big sister. She followed her everywhere.”

That was especially the case when Shayla began to play basketball at Admiral King High School in Lorain.

“She was just starting kindergarten when I went to high school,” Shayla said. “Everywhere I went she tagged along. And from the time she was little, she liked basketball. She always wore this little Michael Jordan jersey and she had a Little Tikes hoop in the house.

“When I was in high school our coach let her ride the bus with us and sit on the bench. She was our little mascot,”

Alex laughed at the mention of those days: “I’d go to practice and dribble on the sidelines and I went to the games. I tried to be just like my sister and follow in her footsteps.”

And that’s where Saint Louis comes in.

Those footsteps turned into footprints all over the flattened Billikens.

Last Saturday, Alex – now a 6-foot-3 redshirt junior forward for the Dayton Flyers who has tattooed arms, a ring in her left eyebrow, a bejeweled stud in her belly button— was a one-woman wrecking crew against Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament semifinal. She had 18 rebounds, 12 points and blocked three shots.

In UD’s three tournament games at the Richmond Coliseum, she totaled 32 rebounds, 24 points and six blocks and is a big reason the Flyers won the title and are headed to the NCAA Tournament.

Dayton’s Alex Harris puts up a shot during a game this season vs. Duquense at UD Arena. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: columnist

And when it comes to personal statement, Alex’s most notable piercing is what she’s done to that “Lil Baby Doll” image.

“She’s just a tenacious rebounder,” said UD assistant coach Jeff House. “She goes after the ball so well and so frequently. She’s relentless. And now her defense has improved and she’s blocking shots. After transferring here and sitting out last year she had to work her way into the lineup early this season. Now we can’t get her off the floor. She’s just a great competitor.”

That’s the way she was when played at Admiral King, where she was a four-time All-Lorain County first team selection and the Lorain County Division I Player of the Year as a senior. She finished her career with 1,043 rebounds, 347 blocked shots and more than 100 colleges recruiting her.

And that’s what got her to Penn State before Dayton.

Home in Lorain

Those tattoos – especially two prominent ones on her arms – let you know she hasn’t forgotten where she came from.

Her left arm is inked with the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry and framed with the tribute: “In Memory of Gramma.”

Her maternal grandmother, Louellen Jones, lived right next door.

“I used to go over there every day and we’d watch the Tom and Jerry,” Alex said. “It was my favorite show.”

“She used to keep her grandma company,” Sandra said. “They really were close. And it’s sad now that her grandma isn’t here to see how well she’s doing. She passed when Alex was a senior in high school.”

As for the tat on the inside of Alex’s other arm, it has the word “OHIO,” except that the first O has been replaced by an outline of the state in which there is a big dot and the word “Lorain.”

Folks back home remember her, not just for what she did when she was growing up there, but what she does now when she comes back.

You could say she made her presence felt right from birth.

“To be truthful, I thought I had the stomach flu and found out I was (pregnant) with her,” Sandra chuckled. “But that’s another story…”

She said Alex was “a big baby… Almost 10 pounds.

“We’d take her out in the stroller and everyone was like, ‘Why does that child still have a bottle? Why isn’t she walking?’ And I’d go, ‘She’s not even six months yet!’

“When she got to kindergarten, she was taller than her teacher.”

Alex said she was “always the tallest one in my class. I didn’t mind it, especially when it came to basketball.”

She developed quite a following and, in fact, when she went to Penn State, folks from her hometown filled a charter bus to come watch her play in State College.

These days when Alex returns home — as a force on the college basketball floor and in the classroom at UD, where she made the Dean’s List last year — her mom said she visits her former coaches and goes to the schools:

“She talks to the kids about the importance of education and how it’s books first, then play.”

Everyone back there knows Alex helped put Lorain on the map – and not just that one needled onto her arm.

She said she got her first recruiting letter when she was a sophomore: “It was from Ohio State and we’ve got it framed.”

Shayla said before her sister graduated from high school, they spread all of her recruiting letters out on the living room floor: “We had to move the furniture because they covered the entire floor.”

She eventually narrowed her recruiting list to Michigan, Louisville and Penn State.

Over two seasons she played in 47 games for the Nittany Lions and averaged 5.3 rebounds and 3 points per game as a sophomore.

She decided to transfer and chose UD, especially because of then-head coach Jim Jabir.

“He was just phenomenal,” Sandra said. “There’s no way I could have afforded sending my daughter there, but he made sure everything was taken care of and she was comfortable. We liked Penn State, but Dayton was just a better fit for her.”

Ups and downs

Alex was ready to play this season – after sitting out last year to comply with NCAA transfer rules – when Jabir suddenly left the program in September for personal reasons.

“That hit home with everybody,” Alex said. “It was just a very sad time.”

The mood and a tough schedule to begin the season left the Flyers with a 3-6 start. Throughout the year there was adversity, be it the gastric illness that ended the career of 6-foot-1 transfer Madeline Blais – a 1,063 point scorer at Marist – before she ever played a game for the Flyers or the late February injury to point guard Jenna Burdette, a second team All A-10 selection, who missed five games.

But along the way – under the direction of first-year coach Shauna Green – the Flyers regrouped, won a share of the Atlantic 10 regular season title, won the A-10 tournament and now are 22-9.

Dayton’s players celebrate their lead over Duquesne in the Atlantic 10 women’s NCAA college basketball championship game in Richmond, Va., Sunday, March 5, 2017. (Daniel Sangjib Min/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
Photo: columnist

“We had a lot of ups and downs – it was very rough at times – but I think Coach Green put it a great way,” Alex said. “She said: ‘Our strength is our strength.’

“We have a great bond as a team. We’ve all needed each other to get through this and we did all kinds of bonding activities and community service and we all live together, so it’s built a real chemistry.”

Alex has started 24 of the Flyers 31 games. She’s the team’s second leading rebounder – averaging 8.1 per game – is averaging 5.8 points and leads UD with 61 blocked shots, a single-season mark that already is sixth best all time for the Flyers.

“She’s become a better player this year,” Shayla said. “She’s being used to her potential now and is thriving more at Dayton.”

And while Sandra tries to come to as many UD games as possible – often bringing 10 or 15 other folks with her – Shayla, who now lives in North Carolina, has caught some Flyers games down there and was at the A-10 Tournament in Virginia.

“I brought 20 to 30 people with me,” she said. “I’m her biggest fan. I just love seeing her out there.”

So does she still see Lil Baby Doll?

Shayla started laughing: “There’s nothing little about her anymore.”

With that Saint Louis would agree.