Despite missed foul shots, Harding still the one

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DALLAS -- After 11 days in North Carolina, I'm back in the Central time zone. And you can imagine the hot topic among many in the media here at Reunion Arena actually wasn't the North Carolina-Purdue regional final. It was about whether a certain coach with an office in Durham, N.C., is going to be relocating to Austin, Texas.

But as the Gail Goestenkors watch continues, all the more in earnest since the Blue Devils were eliminated in the Sweet 16, it's another Duke-related topic I'll discuss here. To wit: why Blue Devils point guard Lindsey Harding still gets my vote for national player of the year.

Yes, our votes for ESPN.com's award went in before the Sweet 16, before Harding's heartbreaking ending. We had the opportunity to change our votes if we so chose. Nobody did.

Now, right away, I can absolutely understand why people might not agree with a vote for Harding. When we did our player-of-the-year projections in late February, I wrote that that the field had narrowed to Harding, Oklahoma's Courtney Paris and Tennessee's Candace Parker. The part that made it so hard to pick is that the three are such completely different types of players. And they all deserved player of the year.

At the time, Duke was undefeated and ranked No. 1, and Harding had been terrific in all of the Blue Devils' key games. So she got my vote.

With much respect to the rest of the Blue Devils' talent, it's hard to imagine they could have sniffed a No. 1 ranking or a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament without Harding this season. Of course, similarly, would Tennessee have gone undefeated in the SEC or earned a No. 1 seed without Parker? Would the Sooners have shared the Big 12 regular-season title and won the league tournament without Paris?

Then, to make things more complicated, you throw in the fact that once the NCAA Tournament started, the player who has been the most impressive is LSU's Sylvia Fowles. Although Parker is right there with her. And how about North Carolina's Ivory Latta and Erlana Larkins?

They are going on to Cleveland. Harding and Paris are not. So … why am I sticking with Harding -- who averaged 13.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.5 steals and shot 44 percent from the field -- as player of the year?

Because I still think Harding's overall season was the most impressive story line of 2006-07. The Blue Devils lost one of the most painful NCAA title games ever in 2006, thanks to a brilliant comeback by Maryland. Duke lost four key players off that team -- Monique Currie, Mistie Williams and Jessica Foley to graduation and Chante Black to injury.

Can anyone honestly say they thought in November that Duke would be in position to be the No.1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament? Harding-led Duke got there.

Yes, the season ended horribly for the Blue Devils. Greensboro Coliseum, which had been the site of one of the biggest Duke victories (the 1999 East Regional final win over Tennessee, sending the Devils to their first Final Four) turned into a haunted house for them this year.

Their only two losses of the season were in that building just an hour from Duke's campus: in the ACC tournament semifinals to NC State and the Greensboro Regional semifinals to Rutgers.

And Harding's last moments on court were gut-wrenching. It was such a bizarre sequence. She made a turnover that appeared to seal the loss. Then she made an amazing defensive play to give Duke one last chance. She was quick enough to get to the basket to draw a foul. And then … with one-tenth of a second left, Rutgers up 53-52 and her college career hanging in the balance, Harding faced as high-pressure a moment as she has -- or ever will -- on a basketball court.

She missed the free throws. If some want to judge her whole season on that, that's their choice. I certainly don't.

There is a great deal left in Harding's basketball career, both in the WNBA and for Team USA. I believe there is an Olympic medal or two in her future. And what happened Saturday in Greensboro will only "define" her in this sense: She might well one day say it made her an even better player.

There is, of course, an overall winner in any and all debate about player of the year (and I expect there will be plenty of debate). The winner is women's basketball -- not just the college game, but the WNBA, which is entering its adolescence as a pro sports venture. All those who are in the running for player of the year this season will be a big part of the league's next steps.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.