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LOS SHOT AT GOLD

Former prep star Jillian Harmon gets her Olympic shot with New Zealand
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Jillian Harmon, left, former Lakeridge High School basketball star and current Stanford University player, rests on the bench during New Zealand’s run in the Beijing Olympics.

Jillian Harmon was happily surprised when she got a chance to play on the New Zealand women's Olympic basketball team in Beijing.

In return, Harmon has been a happy surprise for the New Zealand team.

A former all-everything player at Lakeridge High School and currently team captain for national runner-up Stanford University, the 6-foot-1 Harmon has stepped up to the forefront for the New Zealand women.

The Tall Ferns' quest for Olympic glory ended with a 96-60 setback against the powerful U.S. team on Sunday, but Harmon proved she truly belonged with a series of excellent performances.

'Jillian was super excited for the opportunity to play against the phenomenal players for the USA,' said Heather Roberts, Harmon's former coach at Lakeridge and now head girls basketball coach at Canby High School. 'She said she has been watching some of these players since she was 10 years old.'

Harmon has not only fit in with the Tall Fern team, she has been a leader. She led the way with 12 points and eight rebounds in a 76-72 victory in the opener against Mali. Whenever Mali threatened to tie the game, it was Harmon who usually came up with the clutch bucket.

That proved to be the young Tall Ferns' only victory, as they ran into a string of rugged opponents who were more experienced and physical. But Harmon continued to turn in excellent numbers:

n Fourteen points and eight rebounds in an 80-63 loss to China.

n Twenty-two points in an 85-62 loss to Spain. She earned a rave review from Coach Mike McHugh, who said, 'Jillian was outstanding. She was a handful for Spain all day.'

Not bad at all for a young woman who found out only last February that she had a chance to go to the Olympics.

'Her mom, Julie, was born in New Zealand,' Roberts said.

The story goes that Julie found Jillian's forgotten New Zealand citizenship papers in the bottom of a box in the basement.

So just three days after Stanford fell to Tennessee in the NCAA finals, Harmon was on a plane to Hong Kong to meet her new New Zealand teammates and prepare for a pre-Olympic tournament in Beijing.

There the Ferns went just 1-4, but their lone win was a stunner over reigning world champion Australia. And Harmon was the team's leading scorer in two games. Her Olympic performance proved she was no fluke.

'Jillian didn't expect to do so well so soon,' Roberts said. 'She would have been happy just to sit on the bench. She was so happy about being in the Olympics and experiencing the Olympic Village.'

But Roberts was not surprised.

'Jillian was the best player I ever coached, both talentwise and in her understanding of the game,' said Roberts, who has produced 10 NCAA Division I players in her basketball coaching career.

Harmon was truly awesome at Lakeridge, winning Oregon player of the year honors three times, making high school All-American, leading the Pacers to the 2004 state finals, and ending up as the fifth leading scorer in Oregon prep history.

That earned her a scholarship to powerhouse Stanford, whose entire roster is made up of high school All-Americans. But Harmon has been able to adjust and excel.

'It has been fun to see her role change,' Roberts said. 'Jillian was such a dominant high school player, and it has been neat to see her do the little things that make her valuable to the team.

'She was one of the most competitive kids I have ever coached, and she will do whatever she can to help her team win. Her game has expanded so much.'

Harmon's future will likely be filled with lots and lots of basketball. Her first order of business will be trying to help Stanford win a national championship in her senior season. Pro ball and more Olympic play with New Zealand lie beyond that.

'Their coach has said this is a pretty young team and he wants to keep it together and build on that,' Roberts said. 'Being in the Olympics will be a big help for next year. She has talked about playing overseas.'