The Wolfpack women’s basketball team opens its season tonight at 8 p.m. against Florida International in the Sheraton Raleigh Wolfpack Invitational at Reynolds Coliseum. It’ll also mark the first official game of Kellie Harper’s tenure as head coach of the team. Is she nervous? She told Wolfpack Sports Radio yesterday pretty much the same thing she told us after the Nov. 2 exhibition game against North Greenville (which NC State won 87-44):
I rarely get nervous before games. I might have [some butterflies] at first, but once we tip off, it’ll be gone because I’m very task-oriented and focused on what’s happening on the court.
And here’s what she said last week about the first game during a press conference:
There will be that “Whoa!” feeling before I walk out on the court. I had a little bit of it at the exhibition, standing in the tunnel waiting to walk out. I cracked myself up a few times thinking about what I was doing and where I was. “This is pretty cool.” And I’m sure I’ll have that moment again several times this year.
We’ll have interviews, notes and a photo gallery after the opening game, so be sure to check that out. We’ll also have notes and interviews following the Wolfpack’s second game of the season, which will be Saturday either 4 p.m. (if they’re in the invitational’s consolation game) or 6 p.m. (if they’re in the invitational’s championship game). Go to GoPack.com for a full game preview and for a story on freshman guard Marissa Kastanek. (Update at 9:34 a.m.: The Wolfpack will play Saturday at 6 p.m. regardless of what they do tonight. So if you’re heading to the football game against Clemson, stop by Reynolds afterward.)
Before the game tonight, though, we’ve got a short Q&A with senior forward Lucy Ellison and a highlight from yesterday’s two-hour practice. It’s our latest installment in “A Coach’s First Season,” in which we’re following Coach Harper and her team for the season for a feature that will appear in the spring issue of NC State magazine.
Q&A with senior forward Lucy Ellison
Last week during a press conference, Coach Harper was asked what has been the biggest surprise since she was named NC State’s women’s basketball coach. Her answer: the improved play of Lucy Ellison. “When she’s not on the court,” Harper says, “you can tell.” A 6-foot-1 senior forward, Lucy is a two-year starter who averaged 2.9 points and 6.8 rebounds last season. She talked to us about her improvements, her coach, and the Wolfpack’s first opponent.
Coach Harper has said you’re the most improved player since the workouts began in May. In what areas do you think you’ve improved?
On the offensive end. I haven’t been an offensive threat in the past because I’ve been hesitant and didn’t have the confidence. If I missed a shot I would get down on myself and tell myself I shouldn’t have shot that. I hope this year I’m more of an offensive threat, and I think bringing that to my game is what our team needs, and I hope I can be a leader by example.
Last year you lost to Florida International 58-42; this year you open the season against them. Does that work to your advantage or against you?
It works for us. They were not better than us last year, and I feel like we should have beaten them. We let them beat us last year, and we didn’t play up to our caliber. Actually, I [recently] watched 10 minutes of the first half of last year’s game, and I had to turn it off because I was getting mad again. I was mad that we were playing so bad and we weren’t doing anything right. I just had to turn it off. And now, I’m ready to play; I’m about to bust open right now.
Other than the changes in the coaching staff and new offensive and defensive schemes, what’s the biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s team?
Confidence for the whole team. For a lot of players, we were playing scared. We were timid and didn’t want to make a mistake. Coach Harper tells each player if it’s your shot and you’re open, shoot it. I think that did a lot for us as a team. She trusts in us to take our shot and make it.
Describe her as a coach.
Energetic! She has a lot of energy. That gives me a lot of energy and makes me want to play up-tempo every minute and to have fun. She really stresses that—to have fun. Don’t just do stuff to get through it; do it and get something out of it, and have fun while you’re doing it. If you don’t have fun doing something you have to do every day, you’re going to be miserable.
As a post player, you work a lot with assistant coach Stephanie McCormick. What has she taught you?
She helped me to be patient. I’ve always felt that if my back is to the basket, then I’ve got to get my shot off quick. But she taught me the opposite: Patience is the best thing for a post player. Let things come to you. Don’t rush it.
How did you get started playing basketball?
A lot of people get started playing when they’re little, but I didn’t start playing basketball until I was in the 7th grade. And I only started playing because the coach told me that I was tall and I was going to make the team. I didn’t have to try out. I was like, “OK. I’ll do it.”
What made you stick to it?
People said I had potential. I’d say, “Really? You think I’m good. Well, OK. I’ll keep playing.” I didn’t even know I was good or had potential. I was just playing because the coach asked me and I liked her. I thought she was cool.
What motivates you now?
I love basketball, and I’m passionate about it. And, my mother and family are always behind me. My little brother is also into sports, and I feel that I need to be a good role model for him. I always try to do my best and go hard so my little brother can look up to me.
What do you want to do after graduation?
Pharmacy school. I’m not throwing basketball out the window. If it’s possible for me to continue to play, maybe overseas, I will take that path, but I do plan to apply to pharmacy school. I’ve always wanted to work in the health field, and I enjoy learning about medicine.
When the season is over and you’re looking back on your senior year and Coach Harper’s first year here, how do you want to be able to describe it?
That it was successful. And by successful I mean that we had a winning season, we competed for an ACC championship, and we made it to the Big Dance (the NCAA tournament).
A highlight from yesterday’s practice
At yesterday’s two-hour practice the team worked on scoring in transition, position shooting, in-bound plays, free throws and various end-of-the-game situations, including going the length of the floor and scoring, calling timeouts at the right spot on the floor, and forcing a turnover or getting a steal in the backcourt. The scout team, consisting of one female and four male practice prayers, also ran Florida International’s plays, and the Wolfpack worked on defending against them. After practice, they watched game film.
One specific highlight to note: After the team worked on end-of-the-game situations, a graduate assistant told Coach Harper that her favorite play is . . . Well, it’s the one in the video below. It’s the final 1.8 seconds of the first overtime in a game last season between the College of Charleston and Western Carolina, which Coach Harper coached at the time. Instead of settling for a desperation shot, Coach Harper drew up this play to get her team to the free throw line, sending the game to double overtime.
Ultimately, Western Carolina won in three overtimes, 101-87. The win gave them the 2009 Southern Conference tournament title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“That play got me a ring,” Coach Harper told the graduate assistant. “It changed my life. . . . I’m probably here because of that play. Think about it.”