A Coach’s First Season: Regular Season Ends Sunday
Monday afternoon update: We’ve posted photos from Sunday afternoon’s game above. Below are quotes about the ACC tournament from NC State women’s basketball coach Kellie Harper and senior Nikitta Gartrell.
Kellie Harper on the ACC tournament
Had we’ve been able to get the win on Thursday [against Wake Forest], I think that would have made a huge difference going over into Greensboro. But I think that [66-50 loss] to Wake Forest . . . re-focused our team. . . . You got three wins in a row but you haven’t arrived. It probably really re-focused our team and reminded us what we do best and what allows us to win. . . . For us, we’ve got to be very focused this week. These kids understand what the ACC is. For us, we almost want to treat it like the next game is the season, rather than stop and re-start this thing. I think if we had played this game [Saturday], we would be taking a couple of games off. But unfortunately the way this has fallen, we’ll have [Monday] off, so it’ll be really important the kids get their legs back and come back fresh to practice on Tuesday. We don’t have a lot of new players, but we’ll definitely talk about the atmosphere, even for shoot-around at the ACC tournament. The media attention and all the hype—it’s important they understand what we’re getting into. . . . I think your veteran team understands it a little better and typically handles it a little better—understanding all the hype surrounding the tournament. But then you’ve got to be mature enough to focus in on what you need to do when it’s time to put the ball on the court.
Nikitta Gartrell on the ACC tournament
I’m excited to end on a good note, but going into [the ACC Tournament] Thursday, we have to bring the same intensity—the same team defense and the same team offense to get past the first round of the ACC tournament, which we’ve failed to do the past two years. I love my teammates, and I know we’re capable of doing it. It’s just going to have to start in practice. [We can’t] dwell on, “OK we beat Georgia Tech on Sunday.” That’s not going to fly, because in the ACC, it’s up for grabs. I think we are just going to have to practice hard like we always do.
Nikitta Gartrell on playing 11-seed Clemson after losing to the Tigers 69-56 on Jan. 31
After any loss, you dream of the chance to play the team again. . . . You think, “I wish I could play that game again.” We went down to Littlejohn, and we weren’t prepared. As a team, we lost our focus and just went through the motions. We didn’t do that tonight and like we’ve proven in other games. It’s a motivation game. Any time we lose to, I would like another opportunity. Starting with Clemson, we’re going to bring it.
Sunday night update: The NC State women’s basketball team beat No. 22 Georgia Tech 54-56 Sunday afternoon to finish the regular season 17-12 overall and 7-7 in the ACC. With the win and Wake Forest’s 67-62 loss to Clemson Sunday, the Wolfpack finishes tied for fifth (with the Demon Deacons) in the ACC standings, though they will be the sixth seed in the ACC tournament. NC State will meet No. 11-seeded Clemson at 8 p.m. on Thursday night in Greensboro Coliseum in the first round of the tournament. For a tournament bracket, go to theacc.com. Go to GoPack.com for a game report on NC State’s win over Georgia Tech and a box score. We’ll post photos and quotes from Senior Night on Monday.
After falling to Wake Forest 66-50 on Thursday night, the NC State women’s basketball team stands at 16-12 overall and 6-7 in the ACC heading into its final regular game of the season against Georgia Tech on Sunday. It’ll also be the final home game for NC State’s four seniors — Sharnise Beal, Lucy Ellison, Nikitta Gartrell, and Inga Muciniece – who will be honored before the 2 p.m. tip-off. Leading up to the game, after the jump, we’ve got
- an extended Q&A with senior Inga Muciniece in which she talks about her time at NC State and how she got to the states from her home country of Latvia;
- brief interviews with Sharnise Beal, Lucy Ellison and Nikitta Gartrell about their four years at NC State;
- Coach Kellie Harper’s comments on each of the four seniors;
- Coach Harper’s responses to the latest round of reader-submitted questions; and
- an edited transcript of a Feb. 24 press conference with Coach Harper.
Q&A With Senior Inga Muciniece
A native of Ventspils, Latvia, Inga joined the NC State program in 2008 after spending three years at Barton Community College in Great Bend, Kansas, where she redshirted her true freshman season. During her redshirt sophomore season, she was named to the National Junior College Athletic Association’s All-Region VI first team and Barton finished fourth at the National Junior College Athletic Association’s National Tournament.
A 6-foot-5 center, she started 13 games for NC State last season and has averaged a little over five minutes in nine games this season. She missed about a half-dozen games during the middle of ACC play with a sprained ankle.
What happened Thursday night in the loss to Wake Forest, and what has been the message from the coaches as the final game of the regular season approaches and then the ACC tournament?
We were just not focused before the game and we let it slip away. And [Coach Harper] said after the game that we were not focused enough. We weren’t. We have to bring it every game, and we have been determined to win every game.
How would you describe your role on the team this season?
This season I haven’t had had the role I would have liked to have had, but I’m just trying to support everybody as much as I can. . . . I hope [my teammates] see that I’m somebody they can rely on.
How would you describe this season?
It’s been a roller coaster. First we had to learn a new system, new coaches, new everything. There were downs, but the UNC game showed that we’re able to win games against good opponents and it showed us how far we’ve come this season.
How did you get started playing basketball, and why did you stick with it?
We don’t have high school basketball in Latvia like you do here. We had to do activities in school, and it was your choice what after-school activity to do. And I started with that [at age 7]. I had the advantage of being tall. . . . I wasn’t against [playing in college], but I never thought it would happen. My dad always told me to play hard every game and somebody will see you. I was like, “You’re just kidding me.” I was never really like, “I have to get there [and play in college].” But it happened. And I just love playing. I’ve been around it since the age of seven and can’t imagine my life without it. I’ve grown up on it.
How did you end up in the U.S.?
I was playing in Latvia, and the coach from Syracuse at the time saw me play. His wife was from Latvia, and they were visiting relatives and watching Latvian basketball. He offered me a scholarship. To do that, I had to pass some tests, but I didn’t really try. They told me they could find me a [junior college], so that’s how I ended up at [Barton Community College] in Kansas. I signed with Syracuse, but I decided I wanted to choose for myself where I wanted to play. So I chose NC State.
How did you get introduced to NC State, and what was it about NC State that you liked?
The previous coaching staff came to nationals and saw us play, and we started talking afterward. I got to meet them and Coach Kay Yow, and I just fell in love with the program: the coaching staff, the team, the atmosphere, being an ACC school.
What was the biggest challenge of coming to the U.S.?
I can’t say culture shock because I adjust really well. Kansas was different because I had a host family and they became like my parents. I’ve always been good at adapting. Five years ago I came to the states and had to learn a new language and a new culture and new everything. My first year I had a new coach, second year he was my coach, but the third year, I had a new coach. So I had two coaches at [Barton Community College], and then a new coach last year and a new coach this year. . . . It wasn’t really a challenge but the biggest difference was food. We don’t have fast food [in Latvia] at all. And Chinese food. We don’t have that at all in Latvia. That’s grown to be my favorite.
What are some of the other differences between the U.S. and Latvia?
People are different. Here I feel like people are more open and friendly and helpful. You don’t have a chance to really do that in Latvia because people are so worried about themselves because they’re not living as well there as here. So people don’t pay attention to anybody else. Here people have opportunities to help others, and they do.
You’ve had four different coaches in five years. What did you learn from them all?
Each coach coaches differently, but they all want to win. From Coach Yow, she was really encouraging. She went through so much and she was still cheerful. She woke up every day and said, “It’s a wonderful day.” Every day was important to her.
What’s your advice to incoming players?
Adapt to the system. Every coach coaches differently, but you have to learn to adapt to the style. [Coach Harper] likes to play hard, pressure the ball, fast basketball.
Besides your teammates, what will you miss the most about NC State?
The people. Friends. Basketball. That’s been my life for five years. Two years here. Every day it’s been basketball. Practices. Games.
What will you remember the most about your time at NC State?
Probably last year just getting to know Coach Yow. Then losing her, which was really hard. And this year, a new start. It’s going to be sad looking back. I’ll want to come back and visit.
What would be your final words to your teammates?
What’s your mindset as the final regular season game of your college career approaches?
It’s sad to be done with it. . . . It’s been hard but hard work pays off and I’ve enjoyed it.
What’s next for you?
Hopefully, I’ll continue to play in Europe. If that fails, I’ll move to England and live with my sisters. They moved to England last year for work. My parents are still in Latvia. The economy in Latvia is really bad. That’ll always be my home, but I don’t think I’ll go back to live. . . . My major is business marketing, and I would love to be around basketball, not on the coaching side, but in the background, like managing operations or something like that. In 10 years, I hope I’ll be back here in the states. That’s what I would like to do: to come back here and live.
Quick Interviews with Seniors Sharnise Beal, Nikitta Gartrell and Lucy Ellison
Seniors Sharnise Beal, Nikitta Gartrell and Lucy Ellison spoke to NC State magazine Wednesday afternoon about their four years at NC State. Be sure to read the extended Q&As we did with Sharnise, Lucy and Nikitta earlier in the season.
How would you describe your four years at NC State?
Sharnise: It went by fast. It’s over before you know it. It was fun. I had a lot of opportunities and met a lot of people. Overall, it was a good.
Lucy: It was very eventful. We’ve had some fun times, some sad times. It was definitely a roller coaster. Overall, it was a good learning experience, met some people, developed some convictions. I would definitely do it over again.
Nikitta: Fast. Very fast. It seems like I just got here. . . . I think my four years have been great. I’ve had my ups and downs. I’ve met millions of friends. I’ve got to do new things, see a lot of things, travel.
In what ways do you think you’ve changed or grown the most during your time at NC State?
Sharnise: I learned how to interact with a lot of different people. You have a lot of people who look up to you. And sometimes you don’t feel like smiling, but you have to get over it. I guess I learned what it means to be an adult.
Lucy: I matured as a person overall. My outlook on life and the world matured. I learned a lot of things with Coach Yow and even with Kellie during the small time she’s been here. I learned about character and life in general. I think I became a better person.
Nikitta: Oh, man. I’ve grown a lot. I think Coach Yow would be proud of me. I’m a jokester. I like to have fun; I’m always smiling. When I’m not smiling, you know I’m having a bad day. I think I’ve grown into a good person. When I came in, I didn’t care about much and was always silly and playing around. Now I know when to channel funny stuff compared to serious stuff. I think I’ve turned into a better leader for my teammates.
Ten years down the road when you’re looking back over your time at NC State, what are the moments that are going to stand out?
Sharnise: Making it to the Sweet Sixteen [my freshman year]. That would definitely be my moment.
Lucy: Beating Carolina here and when our fans rushed the court [when I was a freshman]—that’s a great memory. Beating Duke in the tournament and getting to the ACC championship game [my freshman year]. Going to the Sweet Sixteen. That whole line our freshman year was amazing. I was amazed the whole time because of what we accomplished. That’s definitely something to remember.
Nikitta: My first memory would be beating UNC my freshman year here in Reynolds Coliseum and then the other night [beating UNC in Chapel Hill]. Another memory is beating an undefeated Duke my freshman year in the ACC tournament. That’s something I will never forget. And just the fact that I had the chance to play for Coach Yow—to just get to know the type of person that she was–that’s something in itself.
Besides your teammates, what will you miss the most?
Sharnise: Being a student. . . . [There's some anxiety] about what’s next. You always have it in your mind of what you really want to do. But you’re not sure if it’s the direction you should take right now, so choosing what’s right for you is nerve-wracking.
Lucy: Just being a student. I’ve got to be an adult now. So I’m definitely going to miss still being a student and not being under my mother’s wing anymore. Just growing up more, I’m not ready for that yet. . . .I’m not really sure what’s next for me. I’ve got options, but I’m not really sure what’s next and I’m kind of scared of that.
Nikitta: Getting to know the coaching staff a little more. I’m definitely going to miss them. They came in at a crucial time taking on this team and not knowing much about us and creating a different team. I think I’m going to teammates and the fun times we all have and getting to know the coaches.
What advice do you have for incoming players?
Sharnise: Stay humble. Work hard. Do what you have to do to stay on top of what you have to get done.
Lucy: Have fun and be in the moment. Don’t look too far ahead and don’t look too far in the past. Just stay in the moment. The moments don’t last long, so cherish them.
Nikitta: They must always work hard. If you don’t work hard, you don’t stand a chance. This is a quote that I like a lot. “Hard work doesn’t guarantee success, but without it, you don’t stand a chance.” I tell myself that every day. I even wrote it on my mirror. I wake up every day and think, “OK. Time is ticking down. One more practice. One more game to go. One more class.” All this stuff is over come May. Every day I come here, I know I have to bust my butt for my teammates and so we can be successful.
What would be your final words to your teammates?
Sharnise: Stay focused. Work hard. I hope them all the best. I love them to death.
Lucy: Always go hard and really play in the moment. It will go by fast. Have fun. That’s the important part. You don’t want to be doing something for four years that you don’t really like.
Nikitta: It was great knowing y’all, great playing with y’all, great growing with y’all, but I gotta go.
Coach Harper’s Comments on the Four Seniors
On Sharnise Beal
Sharnise has battled injuries and she’s had setbacks, but right now, she’s playing her best basketball. She’s giving us big minutes. Technically, she’s out of position, but we’re able to utilize her strengths in that position. Right now, she’s playing well. She is the most gifted athlete we have on the team. She’s fun to watch in practice.
On Lucy Ellison
Lucy has got a huge heart. It’s so big. I’m so happy that she is playing well because she deserves it. She works hard. She’s a fighter. She doesn’t quit. I’m very fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach her.
On Nikitta Gartrell
Nikitta is a character. She’s full of life and full of energy. She lights up a room. She’s the center of attention. She’s definitely spent the most time of any player in our offices hanging out. She wants to come in and chit-chat all the time. We have a great relationship.
On Inga Muciniece
Inga is always smiling. She’s quiet, but she’s been very supportive of her teammates. She is very coachable and wants to do what you ask her to do. She’s an unbelievably sweet kid.
On the contributions of all four seniors
The seniors are vital to success at any program at any level. We wanted them to be on board from day one, and they have been. We tried to sell them finishing strong and having a great season year and accomplishing some of their goals. They are pretty motivated. They want to do things right because they want to win right now. . . . Our older kids have battled, and our younger kids understand how to do that. If you watch Lucy play, you can learn from her example of how to play hard and how to play smart and how to take a charge. There are little things here and there that they’ve taught our younger kids.
Coach Harper’s Answers to Reader-Submitted Questions
What was the first thing you did after learning you got the NC State job?
Started making travel arrangements. And I guess after I was announced we had a workout with the players and [focused on] recruiting. I think it was important to get on the horn with some coaches early.
What’s your dream non-conference schedule? And if any of those teams aren’t currently on the schedule, are there plans to get them on the schedule?
They didn’t want to ask if we’re going to play Tennessee?! [Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt] and I have discussed potentially playing each other in the next few years. I do think that is going to happen. I’m not sure when it will happen, but we have talked about it.
How do you like living in the Raleigh area, and how does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
I love Raleigh. This is a great place to live. It’s clean. It’s nice. It’s pretty. There is plenty to do without feeling the hustle and bustle of city life. It’s quite a bit bigger than Cullowhee.
Have a question you’d like to ask Coach Harper? Send the question to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Transcript of Feb. 24 Press Conference With Kellie Harper
Kellie Harper took questions from about eight members of the media Wednesday afternoon before a 1 p.m. practice and the 66-50 loss to Wake Forest Thursday night.
In mid January you described the season so far as a roller coaster. How would you describe the season now?
We’ve leveled out a little bit now. We haven’t been so down as a roller coaster might be. Obviously, we’re coming over this little hump here and I don’t know what to expect. I’m hoping that we won’t see any more lows for the rest of the season and that our kids continue with the effort. We feel good about going in the right direction. . . . I like where we are at.
Did you think before this season that you would have your team in position for an NCAA berth?
I’m an optimistic person. So before the season I felt like we could get to the NCAA tournament. It was looking quite shaky in January and obviously things are still up in the air. But I did. I felt like if we worked hard and if we continued to get better we could have a chance to be in the NCAA tournament.
What’s different about his team now compared to January?
I think we are playing with a lot more patience right now and we’re executing better offensively. We’re playing harder defensively. We talked about this with our team yesterday that we’re practicing harder and we’re practicing better right now and it’s transferring over to the court.
With the loss of Tia Bell for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, the team is even smaller. What adjustments have you made to deal with an even smaller lineup?
We don’t talk to our players that “Hey, they’re bigger than us. We’ve got to do this.” We just say, “We gotta go play.” I think our kids understand they have to play harder and a little smarter. We also realize that it’s not one-on-one. Lucy against a 6-foot-4 girl is not good. Five-on-five, we have a chance. So we’ve really instilled in them that it’s a team defense and that you have to help each other out and have each other’s back. Every little part of our defense affects everything else, from the ball pressure to the denial to the help side. Everything affects the results. Our players finally bought into that system.
What impact has freshman Marissa Kastanek made on this team?
You can look at the stat sheet and see the impact she’s had on our team statistically. Some things she does that may not show up on the stat sheet: She is the hardest worker we have on our team. She is one of the most competitive players we have on the team. She loves basketball. Her knees are bruised, scarred, skinned up. We had to force her to wear knee pads because she gives everything she’s got 100 percent of the time, and I think that has helped our team. The rest of our team has learned from Marissa. With her, I think, moving forward we continue to work on her decision-making and her intelligence on the court. She’s still learning the game. She plays so hard, she’s going to make some mistakes. That’s OK. We can live with that. But we’re always trying to find ways we can get better, and that’s probably the area where she can improve the most.
What do you want from Marissa on the court as the point guard?
Right now, she has proven that when she has the basketball our tempo is better. We like the ball in her hands. However, when you have a shooter like Marissa, you also would like for her to get some screens coming back to the ball. She’s not going to be a player that’s coming down with a no-pass offense and score. She’s going to get into a set offense and work back to the ball for her scoring opportunities.
When you look back at the stretch in January where you lost four of five games, what stands out about those losses?
We were not having good practices. We were going through the motions. It was like we had hit a wall. It’s a very long season. A lot of times each team will hit a wall and at that point they can bounce back or stay down. We kind of got our second wind. I thought the week leading to the Virginia Tech game, we had a bye date and were able to get a couple of extra practices, and I thought that was huge. We had three or four great practices leading up to Virginia Tech and there is no doubt in my mind that was the turnaround for us.
What adjustments did you make in those practices?
I adjusted them a little bit during that week to really get after it. We practiced hard, and I challenged our players. We were very physical and really focused a lot on defense.
After the Duke loss, what changes did you make?
We didn’t really change anything. You guys have heard me talk a lot about film and how important it is to the learning process and the maturity of the team. But we did not watch the Duke game. We wiped that one clean and told our players that we had to be able to move forward. We wanted that to be a short-term memory game. We felt like we still could do something pretty special with the last five games in the season. We didn’t want to dwell on the negative too long after the game because there weren’t too many positives. . . . Our post-game talk after Duke wasn’t much about what we did and did not do in the last 40 minutes. It’s what we had to do moving forward. I typically like to correct mistakes, but we felt like we needed to push that one aside.
How good is Duke?
I think Duke has proven at times that they are a legit basketball team and a legit Final Four team. I haven’t seen them enough to know if they’ll be consistent in the tournament. But they have great size and they play defense consistently. That gives you a leg up when you move to the NCAA tournament.
Would you like another shot at Duke?
Well, yeah. The way I figure it is if we play them again—I don’t even know what the [ACC tournament] bracket looks like—but if we play them again we’re still alive and moving forward. I’m not into trying to seek revenge on every loss we get. But I’m into playing as long as we can in March. . . .I think we would play them better now than the first time around. They are such a good basketball team. They’re a tough matchup for us period. But I think if our players can sit back and realize we can play with them, I think we could find some success and do some things we weren’t able to do over there. There were some things we did in the second half we didn’t do in the first half. We were almost shell-shocked. I have confidence in our players that we would have a better showing.
Would you watch film of the Duke game if you were to play them again?
I would absolutely watch film if we played them again. We would put together a pretty comprehensive scouting report the second go-around.
Have there been any surprises for you coaching in the ACC?
There are some great coaches in this league . . . and some really good scouting reports throughout the league. I think I pretty much expected the majority of what we’ve seen. I expected a very physical league. I feel pretty good about how well our players have responded to that. I wanted them to be a physical team in the ACC, and I feel like we’re moving in that direction. There are obviously some very, very talented players in the league and you have to have multiple game plans. Plan A doesn’t always work. You better have some alternatives to your basic defense and offense plan. It’s a very competitive league. Anybody can win on any given day and this year has proven it. I stopped looking at the standings a couple of weeks ago because I couldn’t figure it out. I don’t know how many adjustments I’ve made as a coach. Sometimes when you’re not winning or playing well, sometimes it’s hard to stick with your philosophy and game plan. But right after our Clemson game, I was really on the fence with making some overhauls. Thank goodness my assistant coaches brought me back to reality, and we stuck with our original game plan.
One of those assistant coaches is your husband, Jon Harper. What makes it work for you two?
It just works for us. When we go home, we don’t have our own children to talk about. So we talk about the girls. It’s our life. Occasionally we might go out to dinner and a movie to get away from things. But during the season, this is what we do. We go home and watch film and watch games and we talk about players and personnel and our next opponent. Fortunately Jon has a laid-back personality off the court, which helps us to make this work.
What’s been the biggest surprise this year?
I don’t know if it’s been a big surprise, but our players believed the whole time. A lot of times after a few losses, you can see players tune you out or start going through the motions to finish the season. They’re ready to move on. This team never did that. They kept fighting. Most of these players have been through a lot these past few years, but they continued to show resiliency.
There have been good crowds at the past couple of home games. How do you feel about the level of fan support?
I’m so excited because the community is excited and NC State fans are excited for this team. For me, I want it for the players. I want them to experience the excitement because they are doing something special. I want people to love them for their effort and for what they do on the court. And I think right now, we’re seeing that. I’m so grateful to NC State fans and students for all of their support. It means so much to the players and to our staff.
Your team’s strength of schedule is 21st in the country and RPI ranking is 38. How do you think your non-conference schedule has helped you at this point in the season?
Early on we were challenged. I think that helps so you don’t start ACC play and get shell-shocked by the competition.
What’s the confidence level of the team heading into the final stretch of the season?
We feel good about where we’re at. I think we feel good about what we’re doing. I think we feel good about each other and what our strengths are and how to utilize our strengths. . . . To win close games, to win tight games, big games you’ve got to have a little air about that you feel like you can win.
One of your points of emphasis early in the season was that you wanted to be a good free-throw shooting team. You’re second in the ACC in free-throw shooting, making 73.6 percent. How critical is that to the team’s recent success?
When you make free throws, it helps your scoring obviously when your offense is stagnant. [We’ve had] a lot of close games decided at the free-throw line. Ironically, we don’t talk a lot about free throws as a team. We work on them every day and we step to the line and expect them to make them. My hats off to the kids for really focusing and making them the past few games.