Ray Harper’s 20-year old rivalry with Bruce Pearl set to reemerge in NCAA Tournament

Photo courtesy of Katie Alexander/JSU

Thomas Ashworth, Sports Editor

This Thursday won’t be the first time Ray Harper vs Bruce Pearl will be played in front of a packed crowd. In fact, the two have coached against each other in front of sellout crowds multiple times.

From 1996-2001, Ray Harper and Bruce Pearl both coached at teams in the NCAA Division II Great Lakes Valley Conference at the same time. Harper at Kentucky Wesleyan, where he was head coach from 1996-2005, and Pearl at Southern Indiana, where he was head coach from 1992-2001.

In the five years they coached in the same conference, Harper led Kentucky Wesleyan to four NCAA Division II National Championship appearances, winning two NCAA Division II titles.

After Harper’s second championship title in four years, Pearl left Southern Indiana to assume the head coach position at Milwaukee in 2002. Bruce Pearl finished 3-13 against Ray Harper.

Harper discussed his past with Pearl, noting how popular the games they played against each other were in the community.

“I was younger than him, so that’s why I got the best of him. We really created something of interest to those communities,” Harper said. “Our schools were separated by about 40 miles. You couldn’t get a ticket. Their game at their place, you couldn’t get a ticket. At our place, and when the conference tournament would roll around and seated 10,000, you couldn’t get a ticket to that game.”

Despite their rivalry, the two coaches have a continued mutual respect for each other.

“For those 40 minutes, I was going to try like crazy to kick his tail, and he was going to do the same to us,”  Harper said. “When it was over, I don’t know that I respected anyone any more in that league than I did Bruce Pearl.”

Even Pearl noted how well Harper knows him, even with their last matchup taking place over 20 years ago. In his last season at Southern Indiana, Pearl went 0-3 against Harper, including a 74-91 loss in the conference tournament.

“Ray Harper has an advantage, he coached against me when he was at Kentucky Wesleyan, they know what we’re going to do,” Bruce Pearl said in his press conference on Thursday.

Despite the challenge that lies ahead for Ray Harper and the Gamecocks, Harper noted how excited he was to see Bruce Pearl and how it would be “a lot of fun.”

“I can’t wait to see Bruce. I haven’t seen Bruce in a while,” Harper said. “I got to see him on television. Now I get to see him up close and personal like in the old days. Then we get to see his lovely team. That will be a lot of fun.”

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