Hannah and Ellie Harmeyer are about as close as sisters can be.
The former Shoreland Lutheran girls basketball standouts are now teammates on the Belmont women’s basketball team — Hannah a senior guard and Ellie a junior forward — which punched its ticket to a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament on Saturday by defeating UT Martin, 59-53, in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship game.
The two are also nursing majors, have all of their classes together and will both get their undergraduate degrees in May.
They grew up battling each other on their driveway basketball hoop, along with their oldest sister, Grace.
But there is one area in which Hannah and Ellie draw the line between each other: They won’t live together on their campus in Nashville, Tenn.
“We do everything besides live together,” Hannah said in a phone interview after practice Wednesday afternoon. “I feel that would be a little too much.”
They have no problem, however, cohabiting on the basketball court.
“I think both of us making it to the Division I, NCAA level, it just shows how hard we’ve worked together for our entire lives,” Ellie said. “… Not a lot of people can say they’ve gone to the NCAA Tournament with their sister four different times and have won four conference tournaments.”
Added Hannah: “It’s been really cool to do this thing with Ellie. As young kids, we always dreamed about playing college basketball together. To be able to do that and do that with your sister will stick with me for the rest of my life.”
Belmont on the rise
The Harmeyers are part of a Belmont program that’s become one of the top mid-major women’s programs in the country.
The Bruins (26-6) don’t have to sit on the NCAA Tournament bubble after earning an automatic bid, and they’ll find out where they’re headed and their first-round opponent Monday at 6 p.m. during ESPN’s selection show.
In ESPN’s latest Bracketology with Charlie Creme, Belmont was projected as a No. 12 seed in the Portland Regional with a first-round game against projected No. 5 seed Gonzaga. Wherever they go and whoever they play, the Bruins don’t lack confidence.
“I think we are peaking at the right time,” Hannah said. “Ultimately, that’s what you want your team to do, is peak at the right time.”
Yet for as much as the Harmeyers have in common, their roles for Belmont are significantly different.
Ellie, a 6-foot forward who can play inside and outside, has blossomed into one of the top players in the OVC and one of the team’s most reliable scorers. Hannah, a 5-8 guard, is a reserve who’s played just 42 minutes this season.
Both, however, had to learn to embrace their respective roles.
Ellie came off the bench the majority of last season and averaged 6.9 points per game. The Bruins featured a pair of high-scoring seniors in Kylie Smith and Sally McCabe, but with those two graduated, Ellie had to take on a bigger role this season.
Ellie is averaging nearly a double-double with 16.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. She was named first-team All-OVC last week and may have been the conference’s Player of the Year if not for senior teammate Darby Maggard, a point guard who became just the fifth player in NCAA Division I women’s history to make at least 400 3-pointers for her career, getting that honor.
In Saturday’s OVC Tournament title game, Ellie scored a team-high 16 points and surpassed 1,000 for her career in the process.
“It’s been a really, really good season,” she said. “We graduated three seniors last year that made a huge impact on our team. Sally and Kylie both averaged double-digit points last year. I didn’t have to score as much for this team to be successful. … I knew this year I needed to step up, and the team needed me to score more. I needed to be more of an offensive threat.
“It’s been a really good season. I get those awards, but I really couldn’t do anything without my teammates. … All the credit goes to my team.”
Leader off the court
Hannah’s contributions, meanwhile, have come more off the court. She transferred after spending her freshman year at Wisconsin Lutheran College and admitted it wasn’t easy right away to accept a role as a bench player.
“That’s actually something that I did struggle with for a while,” she said. “Nobody wants to come into college and be told, ‘Hey, we don’t know if you’re ever going to get playing time.’ So that’s something mentally that I’ve had to overcome.
“… I really focused on the team and putting the team before myself. I just focused on, ‘What can I do every single day to make my teammates better?’ … Just anything I can do to contribute to my team. I feel like I’ve found my niche.”
Ellie was quick to bring up her older sister’s contributions, which include being a team captain and leading team prayers. And Hannah did play in the OVC Tournament title game and came up with a key steal late.
“Even though Hannah’s not playing as many minutes on the court, a lot of what people don’t see is what goes on in the locker room,” Ellie said.
With a lengthy break between the conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament, Belmont’s players were given some time off, and the Harmeyers spent three days back in Wisconsin.
Though they can’t attend games because of their own schedules, they still keep in touch with Shoreland coach Holly Bahr and former teammates.
Both followed the exploits this season of Shoreland senior guard Chelby Koker, a Northern Illinois recruit who became the first player — boy or girl — to eclipse 2,000 career points. She broke the school scoring record set by Ellie Harmeyer, who played with Chelby’s older sister, Caylee.
“We definitely keep up with coach Bahr and how the season’s going,” Ellie said. “… They had an incredible season, and all props to Chelby. She’s an incredible player, and she’s going to do great things at the next level. … (Northern Illinois is) getting a good one.”
Both Harmeyers are enjoying the break from game action as they get a chance to rest their bodies and prepare for the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins were the first women’s team to punch their ticket to the Big Dance.
“It’s really nice having those couple days off (of practice), especially having our bodies recover,” Ellie said. “I really like it.”
Now, the Harmeyers and their teammates will try to do something that the program hasn’t been able to accomplish.
For all their success in recent years, the Bruins have not been able to win an NCAA Tournament game.
They’ve been the lower seed in each one, losing 74-60 to Michigan State in 2016, 73-70 to Kentucky in 2017 and 72-58 to Duke last season.
Belmont will almost certainly be a first-round underdog again this season, but Ellie feels the team is battle-tested.
“The last four years (are) just a testament to how hard this team has worked and how hard we’ve worked during the offseason,” she said. “When it comes to March Madness, it’s not about what you’ve done that month or that year. It’s what you’ve done that offseason.
“… We don’t have the kind of athleticism that the ‘quote-unquote Power 5’ conferences have, so that just gives us motivation to get in the gym and work on our skills and our teamwork.”
“We make goals at the beginning of every year. The last four years has been to get that first NCAA win. I think that our team is good enough to get that NCAA win. … We play the hard teams to prepare us for March, and we play teams from the ‘Power 5’ conferences, because those are the teams we’re going to be playing in March. … We have all the tools to achieve that.”
Added Hannah: “I think something that we always talk about is that we’re never satisfied. We’re never satisfied with where we are at. All these accolades and awards and championships are amazing, but we’re always striving for that next goal. We always set really high standards for ourselves, and we always strive to meet those standards.”
This will be Hannah’s last chance to win an NCAA Tournament game, as she’s in her final year of eligibility. Ellie, who took a redshirt after suffering a knee injury her sophomore year, will go to graduate school next year to use her final season of eligibility.
Hannah said she plans to live in Nashville and get a job in nursing after graduating. She’ll watch her sister from the stands next season.
“That’s going to be weird, because I’m going to be wanting to yell things to her, but I’m going to be in the stands, so I’m going to have to keep it together,” Hannah said.
The Harmeyers, ever the competitors, will probably keep playing basketball with and against each other after college, but it’ll turn into a recreational affair.
They joked Wednesday that they can’t wait to bore their kids one day with stories of playing on the same college team together.
“It’s been a really, really great experience,” Ellie said.