A Coach’s First Season: Highlights from the First Game

November 14, 2009
By Cherry Crayton

The Wolfpack women’s basketball team opened its season Friday night with an 87-71 victory over Florida International (FIU), giving Coach Kellie Harper her first victory at NC State. “I think I just had my first great Reynolds atmosphere experience at NC State,” Harper said after the game. “That was an exciting basketball game. It was a lot of fun.”

What made it exciting? After the jump we’ve got quotes and notes from the game, from the pre-game to the post-game, to help answer that question. At the bottom of the entry, we’ve also got a narrative of the locker room scene before the game and observations from the Wolfpack Women’s Basketball radio crew. In the video above is one of the members of the crew, Patrick Kinas, interviewing Coach Harper immediately after the game. If you want the traditional game recap and box score, go to GoPack.com. For photos, check out The N&O’s photo gallery. We hope to add our own photos soon.  It’s all part of NC State magazine’s latest installment of “A Coach’s First Season.”

Pre-game quote from Coach Harper:

I hope we play hard, and I hope we do some of the things we work on in practice every day. They’ve been loose all day, and that’s all I’ve wanted.

Pre-game quote from assistant coach Stephanie McCormick, who spoke to us immediately before the team ran onto the court for warm ups.

I’m anxious to see what’s going to happen; I’m anxious because [I] don’t know what’s going to happen. A new staff. A new team. The first game. And the fact that it’s a tournament, so you’ve got that quick turnaround. We have been so involved in watching film and dealing with the Xs and Os, we haven’t had time to really think about the emotional aspect or the significance [of the first game]. Until right now. Right now. And it’s the best feeling, really.

Excerpts of Coach Harper’s address to the team before the game
Go to the bottom of the entry for a full  narrative of the scene in the locker room before the game.

This is what we’ve been waiting for, right?

We want to push tempo.

We want to try to get easy baskets in transition.

Execute.

If you whiff, it’s not going to work. Get the ball inside.

Attack the glass on offensive boards.

Defensively, great ball pressure. We’re making them dribble. Make them dribble.

Communicate, especially when they pick on the ball. We know it’s going to happen. Don’t be shocked when you get a pick on the ball.

And, five people boxing out. Five people boxing out.

Hey, we don’t get many of these [first games of the season], right? Make it count. Make it count. Alright.

Let’s have fun y’all. Have fun.

Game notes

  • The five starters were the same five who started the exhibition Nov. 2 against North Greenville, and four of them scored in double figures:
  1. redshirt junior point guard Amber White (17 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals);
  2. senior guard Nikitta Gartrell (14 points, 3 assists, 4 steals);
  3. freshman guard Marissa Kastanek (11 points, 4 assists);
  4. sophomore forward Bonae Holston (20 points, 4 rebounds);
  5. and senior forward Lucy Ellison (7 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals).
  • Marissa Kastanek scored the first basket, a short jumper near the baseline 51 seconds into the game. She also scored the first basket in the exhibition game Nov. 2.
  • NC State’s first substitutions came at the 15:44 mark in the first half during an official’s timeout. Junior forward Brittany Strachan (5 points) and junior forward Tia Bell (6 points, 4 assists) entered the game with the Wolfpack leading 10-4. During about a 3-minute period in the first half, only one starter was on the floor for the Wolfpack. At one point, during a 40-second spurt in the first half (12:17 to 11:37 left, with NC State up 16-7), Coach Harper had no starters on the floor. Though she shortened the bench in the second half, nine players played at least 13 minutes. “If I can substitute and play that many and play a full-court press, we’re doing something right,” Coach Harper said. “ I thought our bench did a great job. Especially bringing Brittany [Strachan], Tia [Bell] and Sharnise [Beal (2 points)] off the bench — that’s some firepower. I like that. Whoever comes off the bench has to give us that spark. We’re going to run them in and run them out. They know they have to give me everything they’ve got, and they know they’ll go back in if they do.”
  • Redshirt sophomore Emili Tasler (5 points, 4 rebounds) scored the first points of her collegiate career when she drained a 3-pointer with 9:54 left in the half. Emili, who had arrived at NC State from Apex High School in 2007, had missed the past two seasons due to a knee injury.
  • Nikitta Gartrell scored on a jumper with 6:24 left in the half to give NC State its largest lead of the game, 31-10. But FIU made 7 3-pointers and went on a 29-8 run during the remainder of the half to take a 39-38 lead into the break. FIU’s Ashley Traugott was 4 of 4 from 3-point range in the first half and finished the game with 25 points and 7 of 8 on 3-pointers. “In the last few minutes of the first half, we were playing in a half-court defense most of the time, and they’re very good at a half-court offense, obviously,” Harper said. “They were able to find shooters. We lacked the pressure we needed at times and we weren’t scoring on the other end. . . . I thought our shot selection the last four minutes was not great, and we weren’t getting any second shots. All of that combined. . . . .”
  • What adjustments did NC State make at half-time? “We’ve worked on our man offense quite a bit more than we’ve worked on our zone offense (FIU played a zone defense),” Coach Harper said. “We finally just went with our man offense and got a little more movement. We were standing to begin the second half, and I thought just the movement that our man offense gets was very positive.”
  • FIU opened up the second half with a 3-pointer and a 7-2 run to build a 46-40 lead, its largest of the game. But NC State ramped up its full-court pressure defense and forced a dozen turnovers, which the Wolfpack converted into 23 points in the final 15:36, when they also made 18 of 22 free throws.
  • During a key 4-minute stretch in the final 15:36, which was nearly book-ended by the media timeouts, NC State made 6 of 8 free throws; Lucy Ellison grabbed an offensive rebound and had a put back in traffic that got the bench and crowd to its feet; and Brittany Strachan made a 3-pointer to pull the Wolfpack to within 53-52 with 11:22 left. On FIU’s next possession, Brittany nabbed a steal and connected with Nikitta Gartrell for an old-fashioned 3-point play, giving the Wolfpack the go-ahead lead, 55-53, with 10:50 left. NC State outscored FIU 32-18 the rest of the way.
  • Overheard from a spectator: In the second half an official called a foul on a Wolfpack player, and a woman behind press row made it known that she didn’t like the call. She booed, and then she yelled “She fouled herself!” followed up with, “She’s an actress!”
  • After the final buzzer, spectators—many of them students—chanted “Kel-lie! Kel-lie!” and Coach Harper addressed the crowd: “Thanks for being here. [I’ll] never forget this game. . . . Make sure you [come] back here tomorrow night. We’ve got another one to go.”
  • The Wolfpack will play Vermont Saturday at 6 p.m. in Reynolds.

Post-game quotes from Coach Harper
For an edited, detailed transcript of Coach Harper’s comments to the media following the game, click here. Below are highlights of her comments.

I think if a fan came to this game and didn’t enjoy it, they’re not basketball fans. That was fun and exciting. I think our team needs to play high energy to be successful, and I think we were able to do that for 36 minutes tonight.

It really wasn’t any different than any other game for me as far as how I was feeling. I was very focused on our opponent and what our team needed to do to be successful. Now, during the game, I got a little fired up a few times. I think the atmosphere here added to that emotion.

There is some relief to get this [first game] over with. . . . One of the things I want to do this season is that I want people to come here because of the players and get excited about our players. And I felt that in the past few weeks, it’s been a lot about me and my first game here. So I’m kind of glad to get that over with, so folks can again start focusing on our players. They’re the ones that go out there and put the ball in the hole and defend. They deserve it.

I kept thinking, Surely . . . , she’s going to miss. But after about four [3-pointers], I decided she’s not.

[Our players] are not going to do everything right, right now. But they’re still learning. We’ve told them they’ve got to talk it out and not give up, even when they make mistakes. And they did that tonight.

Post game quotes from senior forward Lucy Ellison

We spoke to senior forward Lucy Ellison earlier in the week, and she told us that she wanted to be more of an offensive threat this year. (Read the Q&A here.) So we caught up with Lucy after the game to get her own evaluation of her offensive performance, and we asked her what she learned about her team Friday night.

I didn’t do as well or post up as well as I wanted to, and I’m going to improve on that in tomorrow’s game. But I think I came through at the end and did well when the team needed me.

We’re not going out. We’re going to keep fighting until the fat lady sings. We showed that tonight.

Observations from the Wolfpack Women’s Basketball Radio Broadcast Crew

Patrick Kinas has been the play-by-play voice of the Wolfpack Women’s Basketball radio crew for nearly a decade, and Demar Bonnemere has provided color commentary for about half-a-dozen years. The two spoke to us after the game to offer their observations  on the game and the transition since Kay Yow’s death in January.

Demar: It’s definitely a different atmosphere. I think people are still trying to get a sense of [Coach Harper]. She’s made her appearances and now people are trying to get a sense of what she’s like on the court and in a game. Still, we had great fan support tonight and a decent crowd. I think they’re really going to take to her. She’s been great and has really reached out to the entire Wolfpack community. I think they’ve really embraced her and that she’ll definitely continue what Coach Yow built here and take us to the next level.

Patrick: For a lot of fans, [tonight’s game] was probably their shock moment because some didn’t come to the Sunday event [for season ticketholders] a couple of weeks ago. They weren’t at Media Day and maybe they didn’t see [Coach Harper] at appearances. This was probably really a watershed moment for them to see that Coach Yow isn’t there and the rest of the staff isn’t there. There’s not a jersey on the chair and all that. For me, I have been around the new staff so much now. The shock value was months ago. Although, when I did the pregame interview with [Coach Harper], in the same lounge where I used to interview Coach Yow all the time, that was a moment, just internally, when I thought this is really a monumental change.

Demar: I think it will probably hit a lot more people when the Hoops for Hope event comes up. That event is so tied to Coach Yow. For her to not be here for that will really hit home for a lot of people.

On what stood out about the team against FIU

Demar: Some of the lessons of Coach Yow are still there. The players go on a streak, get up and lose a lead, but they never give up. They fought back, got the lead back and managed to get the win. Sometimes you don’t get the win out of it, but they fight until the end. That’s what you could expect day in and day out, and they would continue to play hard on the very end — win or lose — that’s what we saw tonight. They got out kind of strong and had their brief little lull there, but they kept fighting and clawing back and they got the win.

Patrick: For me, it’s a confluence of two different systems and coaches. With Coach Yow, it was half-court defense, take care of the ball, and take a fast break if you’re absolutely sure you can get it. Tonight ,we all know [Coach Harper’s] new philosophy is that we want a layup, we want to run, we want breakouts. We want to force turnovers and to go. I see these philosophies colliding at once, where they’re falling back on some of Coach Yow’s lessons: always fighting and kicking forward when things get tough. But I got to tell you, granted this is FIU, but I saw a belief in the new system. We saw physical evidence that the players are buying into the relentless and tireless, 100 percent pressure, pressure, pressure, pressure, pressure, pressure, pressure, pressure, pressure. They didn’t stop. In years past, they could have done this for a few minutes. But they did it [Friday night] for 11 1/2 straight minutes using seven players and they never got tired. And every time they got a turnover and it led to a layup, it gave them more confidence that they were going to force another turnover. It’s FIU, but. . . .

Demar: We’ve seen this team press more in this one game than we would have seen them do in half a season in the past. That was a big difference, and I think that not only energized them, it energized the crowd.

A narrative of the locker room before the game

At about 7:45 p.m., as the players stretch in the training room, Coach Harper stands in the team’s locker room, alone, writing on a whiteboard. Using a red marker, she lists the four points of emphasis for the game under the “O” (or offensive) category:

  • “Push tempo”
  • “Execute”
  • “Get ball inside”
  • and “Attack the glass!!!!”

Then she lists the four points of emphasis under the “D” (or defensive) category:

  • “Ball pressure”
  • “Communicate (POBs)”
  • “Deny reversal”
  • and “Box out!!!!!”

The jersey numbers of the starters for the opposing team, FIU, are written vertical and serve as a divider between the “O” category and the “D” category. At the top, in all capital letters, Coach Harper writes: “HAVE FUN.”

The players enter the locker room and take their seats. Coach Harper scans the room and notices a player is missing. She calls out that player’s name. “Tia!” A manager says, “Bathroom.” Coach Harper notices another player is missing and calls out her name. “Kim!” The manager says, “Bathroom.” After a slight pause, the manager adds, “They just flushed.” The team laughs. “We have play-by-play of the bathroom,” Coach Harper says. They laugh again. “Lovely,” one of the players says, adding, jokingly, “They’re washing their hands. . . . Now, they’re washing their faces . . . Here they come.”

After the two players take their seats, Coach Harper begins to address the team: “This is what we’ve been waiting for, right?”

She looks toward the whiteboard and points to the offensive points of emphasis. “We want to push tempo. . . .We want to try to get easy baskets in transition. . . . Execute. We’ve talked about it. They don’t handle our screens well if you set them. If you whiff, it’s not going to work. Get the ball inside. . . . Attack the glass on offensive boards. How many people?”

“Four,” the players answer.

“Four,” Coach Harper says, pointing to “Attack the glass!!!!” on the whiteboard. Then, she starts pointing to and counting out the exclamation points written behind “Attack the glass.” “One. Two. Three. Four.”

“Oh, it was intentional!” says one player, referring to the four exclamation points behind “Attack the glass.”

“It was intentional,” Coach Harper says.

She moves into outlining the defensive points of emphasis. “Defensively, great ball pressure. We’re making them dribble. Make them dribble. Which way are we making them dribble?”

“Baseline,” the players answer.

“Into?” Coach Harper asks

“Our trap.”

“Communicate, especially when they pick on the ball,” Coach Harper says.      “We know it’s going to happen. Don’t be shocked when you get a pick on the ball. It’s going to happen. Communicate. . . . We’re going to deny reversal. I don’t want our posts working their butts off. It’s going to be a lot easier if you deny reversal. We’re chasing on the baseline screens. We’re not chasing everywhere to start the game—just on baseline.

“And, five people boxing out,” she says, pointing to the whiteboard and “Box out!!!!!” “Five people boxing out.”

She goes over the defensive assignments for the five starting players: redshirt junior point guard Amber White, senior guard Nikitta Gartrell, freshman guard Marissa Kastanek, sophomore forward Bonae Holston, and senior forward Lucy Ellison.

“OK. Any questions?” Coach Harper asks.

None.

“Right here,” Coach Harper says, motioning players to stand up and circle around her. They do, and as they take each other’s hands, Coach Harper says, “Let’s have fun y’all. Have fun.”

She leads the team in a prayer: “Lord, we thank you for this opportunity to come to play this game. Lord, we ask that you lay your hands upon each team, and let us play free from injury. Lord, just let us always remember that this is an opportunity and a blessing from you. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.”

As the players break their hold, one of them says, “First game. I’m so excited.”

“Hey,” Coach Harper says, “we don’t get many of these, right? Make it count. Make it count. Alright.

“Right here,” she adds, extending her arm up and motioning for the players to do the same and form a tight huddle, which they do. “Together. One, two, three.”

“Together!” the players yell and quickly clap their hands three times. They hurry out of the locker room and rush to the tunnel where they’ll psyche themselves up with an extended cheer before running onto the court and beginning their warm up drills.

Coach Harper stays behind in the locker room, almost all alone. Is she ready for this? To step out of the locker room, to pass through the tunnel, and to walk onto Kay Yow Court, in Reynolds Coliseum, to lead the Wolfpack women’s basketball team in its first regular-season game of the 2009-2010 season? To coach her very first game as the head coach of the NC State women’s basketball team?

“We’re about to find out,” she says.

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