Jessica Harris grew tired of the pleas from her teammates and coaching staff.

During her freshman and sophomore seasons with the Lander women’s basketball team, Harris always showed that she could score at a steady clip for the Bearcats, and the team practically begged her to be more aggressive and shoot the ball more.

Lander saw the potential in Harris and her ability to take her game to the next level, even if she hadn’t fully realized it herself yet.

“Throughout all my years here, I’ve always had teammates who have always told me to keep shooting, that I’m really good,” Harris said. “Even when I didn’t see that for myself, my coaches always told me that too. My family and friends have always believed in me more than I believed in myself. That’s what pushes me.”

In her junior year last season, Harris shot more than she ever has. The starting guard for the Bearcats averaged a career-high 16.9 points per game and was named the Peach Belt Conference Player of the Year.

Harris’ rise in scoring added another element to her already well-rounded skillset. She also led the Peach Belt in assists, steals, made free throws and three-point percentage last season.

Her most impressive feat, however, might have been that she led Lander in rebounding at just 5-foot-5. In fact, her 6.4 rebounds per game ranked seventh in the conference.

“We have a saying in our program that it’s OK to be small, just don’t play small,” Lander coach Kevin Pederson said. “Jessica embodies that. She always plays hard and she has a high basketball IQ. You watch her on the floor and you’re always amazed by all that she can do.”

Harris isn’t intimated by the fact she’ll likely be the smallest player on the court most nights. She said it amps her up even more for games.

“I think a lot of times, bigger players see you and they just see a small kid,” Harris said. “When I see them, I’m like, ‘I’m not a small kid, and I can really bang with you too.’ The edge just really comes from wanting to go get it and having the heart to do it.”

Harris helped lead Lander to a Sweet Sixteen appearance in last season’s NCAA Division II tournament. This season, Harris is one of two seniors on the roster. The Bearcats welcomed six freshmen to the team and returned five sophomores.

Expectations still remain high for Harris and the Bearcats from around the conference. Lander was picked to finish second in the Peach Belt in the preseason coaches’ poll, and Harris was named a preseason all-PBC selection.

Harris will be looking to follow up a standout junior season in which she ranked top 10 in 18 statistical categories.

“She’s a kid who had just about every conference and school award you could get last year,” Pederson said. “I think the challenge is just coming back and becoming better. She’s already playing better this year than she ever has before.”

Harris was pushed by older teammates to elevate her game. Now, she’s ready to do the same for the younger players on the roster.

“We’re trying to do things we’ve never done before, whatever that may be,” Harris said. “It’s a new team. We’re just trying to be better every day and help the freshmen out. That’s the legacy I want to leave. We just want to make sure we’re seeing improvement each day. That’s really the only expectation we have.”

Contact sports writer Wesley Dotson at 864-943-2530 or follow him on Twitter @WesleyPDotson.