COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — Her last home game as a Tennessee Tech Golden Eagle in the rearview mirror, Akia Harris stood in the tunnel at the Hooper Eblen Center.
To the right of the former Girls Preparatory School and Hamilton Heights Christian Academy standout was her father Steve. To her left, mother Adriane. Behind Harris stood her brother Steve Jr. and a couple of younger cousins, all dressed in purple shirts that read "My Favorite Player" on the front. The words were stitched in capital letters over a pink basketball with a player — presumably Harris — shooting. Next to the figure was Harris's No. 0, with "Akia" written underneath the number.
As it came time to introduce Harris on senior day, a montage of her Golden Eagles career showed on the video board above. Her family smiled while gazing at the footage of her making layups, 3-pointers, assists and steals, basking in a moment that, three years ago, was fair to question would ever come.
It was soon after Harris's freshman season at Tech when her basketball future became murky. The 5-foot-5 Harris, a Times Free Press Best of Preps selection in basketball and soccer during her time at GPS, had just taken a couple of weeks off and was ready to start working out again when she felt pain in one of her legs.
"One weekend I decided to go home, and my mom rushed me to the emergency room because my leg was warm to touch and it was swelling," Harris told the Times Free Press on Feb. 22 after the Golden Eagles' 72-59 loss to Southeast Missouri State. "That's when they told me I had a blood clot."
Harris was admittedly unfamiliar with blood clots and the severity of them — that is, until it was explained to her by the doctor.
"I saw my mom crying, and the doctors were like, 'We're going to have to have surgery,'" she said. "Then they looked at the extent of it and weren't sure if I was ever going to be able to play again."
Doctors were able to drain blood out of her hip, which allowed her to continue to play. Harris was on blood thinners for six months, though, which prevented her from being able to fully participate in practices and drills because of the potential for injury that contact would present. Undeterred, she chose to train on her own and was eventually cleared to return without missing any games.
She started all 29 games for the Golden Eagles as a sophomore, averaging 8.6 points and 3.6 assists per game while shooting 39.2% from 3-point range, which ranked fourth in the Ohio Valley Conference in 2017-18. A year later, those numbers rose to 9.0 points and 4.3 assists as she started 30 of the 31 games she played in while helping Tennessee Tech earn a postseason win for the first time in 13 seasons to reach the Women's Basketball Invitational quarterfinals.
She has averaged 7.1 points and a career-best 4.8 assists this season, her 498 career assists rank sixth in program history and she is 24 points shy of 1,000 for her career. Along the way she has been part of the ascension of the program, which went from 10 wins her freshman season, to seven when she was a sophomore, to 22 last season, to this year's 17-12 mark entering the Ohio Valley Conference tournament that starts Wednesday in Evansville, Indiana.
Harris and forward Anacia Wilkinson are the only seniors on the roster for the Golden Eagles, who went 10-8 in conference play and are seeded sixth in the eight-team OVC bracket. They will take on No. 3 seed Southeast Missouri (22-7), which swept the season series, at 4 p.m. EST Thursday.
The winner advances to a Friday semifinal against No. 2 seed Belmont (21-8) or No. 7 Austin Peay (18-11), which meet at 4 p.m. EST Wednesday. Belmont's roster includes senior forward Maddie Wright, a former Boyd-Buchanan standout and the daughter of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach Rusty Wright.
Tennessee Tech coach Kim Rosamond, who is in her fourth season, has been glad to have Harris and Wilkinson with her.
"We have a saying in our program to leave it better than you found it, and there's no question these two are leaving the program better than they found it — and they're not finished yet," said Rosamond, who isn't counting out a conference championship. "I think we can really make a run at this thing; we've got the team to do it."
Harris and Wilkinson have been part of the transformation of expectations in Cookeville.
"This program looks a lot different than when they got here," Rosamond said.
Harris will graduate in May with a degree in exercise science, physical education and wellness with a concentration in fitness and wellness. After that she plans to get her master's in sports administration and work toward being an athletic director or a basketball coach.
But for now she's a basketball player with visions of an OVC championship, though one who is mindful of how close she was to having to give up the game.
"It's very special, and I thank God," she said. "They always say you never know when something can get taken away from you, and I experienced that, and I just thank God for even allowing me to come back out here and play and do what I love."