A Coach’s First Season: On the Road with the Women’s Basketball Team

November 25, 2009
By Cherry Crayton

The Wolfpack women’s basketball team flew to Nashville Wednesday morning to play in the Vanderbilt Thanksgiving Tournament. But before they eat their Thanksgiving Day meal (prepared by senior Lucy Ellison’s mother) and face Northwestern State Friday at about 5 p.m., take a look back at their first away game of the season. That happened Monday night, when the Pack defeated Old Dominion 62-52 in Norfolk behind 12 points each from junior forward Tia Bell and freshman guard Marissa Kastanek.

As part of our ongoing series “A Coach’s First Season,” NC State magazine joined the Wolfpack for their bus ride up to Norfolk and back. The latest installment includes

  • a complete, almost hour-by-hour breakdown of the trip here with several photos above and a few highlights (with one item in particular that will stir up the Wolfpack faithful);
  • notes and highlights from the game against ODU interspersed with quotes;
  • a short interview with Bonae Holston, who talks about playing before a hometown crowd;
  • an interview with junior forward Tia Bell, who has come off the bench in the past two games to score in double figures and power crucial runs;
  • an interview with freshman guard Marissa Kastanek, who has scored in double digits in four of the Wolfpack’s five games this season and who talks about her first away game; and
  • an interview with Coach Harper, who talks about the ODU game and what she’s taking away from her first road game.

Find the notes and interviews after the jump, and be sure to check back with us Friday morning, when we’ll post an extended interview with Coach Harper in which she talks about her childhood in Tennessee, playing for Pat Summitt, coming to NC State and this documentary:

Highlights from the road trip to ODU

  • The team left by bus from Reynolds Coliseum at 10 a.m. Sunday for their 7 p.m. game Monday. In addition to the 12 players, four coaches and the bus driver, traveling with the team were four student managers, a graduate assistant and the equipment manager, video coordinator, director of basketball operations, athletic trainer, and sports information officer. The coaches sat at the front of the bus, followed by the support staff and student managers, and then the players. The first order of business when they boarded the bus: the graduate assistant passed out forms for the players, coaches and support staff to indicate their preferences for the pre-game meal Monday at Outback and dinner on the bus ride back to Raleigh after the game.
  • The places the team ate during the road trip were Cracker Barrel (for Sunday brunch/lunch), Max & Erma’s (for Sunday dinner), the hotel’s restaurant (for Monday breakfast), Outback (for the Monday pre-game meal), and a New York-style pizzeria (for an after-the-game meal Monday). The bus was also stocked with potato chips, Fritos, fruit, PowerAde, water, and canned sodas.
The breakfast coupon the hotel passed out to the team.

The breakfast coupon the hotel passed out to the team.

  • Regarding that Monday breakfast in the hotel restaurant. . . . When the players received their room keys Sunday, they were also given a coupon for a breakfast buffet in the hotel’s restaurant. Take a look at it on the right. The coupon was good for “North Carolina women’s basketball.” That didn’t go over too well.
  • Titled “Trust Your Teammates,” the following video was recorded in the hotel after the players ate their pre-game meal Monday and edited by Jason Rasnake, the video coordinator of the women’s basketball team:

  • At about 9:30 p.m., after defeating ODU Monday, the team departed Norfolk to return to Raleigh. Food from a New York-style pizzeria was waiting for them when they boarded, and they ate their dinner on the bus on the ride back. And for the first time during the trip, the TVs on the bus got turned on. What to? ESPN and Monday Night Football. Most of the players listened to music, studied or napped.
  • The team arrived back at Reynolds at about 1 a.m. Tuesday. Before the players departed the bus, Coach Harper announced that the players had Tuesday off but needed to do lifts at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday before they flew out together that morning to Nashville for the Vanderbilt Thanksgiving Tournament. The players went their separate ways and attended classes Tuesday. Tia Bell and Emili Tasler, in particular, had a presentation in a course that counts toward their coaching minor. Their presentation looked at A Cinderella Season: The Lady Vols Fight Back. (More on that Friday.)
  • Don’t forget the complete breakdown here.

Highlights from the ODU Game

  • Old Dominion wore pink uniforms to honor former Wolfpack women’s basketball coach Kay Yow, who died in January 2009. NC State wore its white home uniforms for the game.
  • For the second game in a row, NC State only suited up 10 players. Senior guard Sharnise Beal sat out with a knee injury, and redshirt sophomore Hanna Halteman was out with an ankle injury.
  • Sophomore forward Bonae Holston is a native of Newport News, Va., and several dozen of her family members and friends who live in the area attended the game. She picked up two early fouls and played just 6 minutes in the first half. In those six minutes, she had 6 points and 5 rebounds. She finished with 8 points and 8 rebounds in 23 minutes of action.
  • Junior forward Tia Bell came off the bench to score 10 points in the first half, and the Wolfpack held ODU to just 32 percent shooting (8 of 25) and forced the Lady Monarchs into 13 turnovers, giving the Wolfpack a 32-25 lead at the break. “I love bringing firepower off the bench, and Tia comes in with great energy. She was much more aggressive, especially in the first half,” Coach Harper said.
Emili Tasler (Photo by Peyton Williams)

Emili Tasler (Photo by Peyton Williams)

  • Another player that came off the bench to give the Pack lots of minutes (21, in fact) was redshirt sophomore guard Emili Tasler, who missed the last two seasons because of a knee injury. She scored 6 points and made a big 3-pointer from near the top of the key to break an18-18 tie with 8:16 left in the first half. “A player like Emili, well, she hasn’t played in two years,” Coach Harper said. “So she’s going to get a lot better because the more she plays, the more comfortable she’s going to get.”
  • Soon after the first official timeout of the second half, at around the 15-minute mark, NC State led only 36-34. But the Wolfpack reeled off a 14-2 run and take a 48-36 lead on a Bonae Holston steal and short jumper with about 9:24 left. “During that stretch, we [pushed] the ball in transition and [attacked] the rim, and we didn’t settle for jump shots,” Coach Harper said. “I thought our aggressiveness was key for us getting points on the board.” Bonae Holston added: “Before the first media timeout [in the second half], they got a couple of buckets. That led us to regain our focus, and we executed much better.”
  • The Pack made 8 of 9 free throws in the final 8:55 to hold off the Lady Monarchs. “I thought it was a little chaotic at times, but we knew in the second half that the Lady Monarchs were going to make a run and I was very proud of our kids for stepping up and making big plays,” Coach Harper said. “We made our free throws down the stretch, which enabled us to come out of here with a win.”
  • The Pack held ODU to just 35 percent of shooting (18 of 52) and forced them to commit 24 turnovers. “We mixed up how we were defending the post players and I thought that helped us. We also tried to be physical around the paint. I thought we found some success with that concept, and I think our kids knew personnel and the scouting report well. I was proud of that,” Coach Harper said.
  • Tia Bell and freshman guard Marissa Kastanek led NC State’s scorers with 12 points each. In addition to Bonae, two other players also scored 8 points (seniors Lucy Ellison and Nikitta Gartrell). It’s the second game in a row that Tia has come off the bench to score in double digits, and Marissa has scored in double digits in four of the five games so far this season. “You can tell she’s a tremendous shooter. She’s got a great stroke,” ODU Coach Wendy Larry said of Marissa. “I think she will have a really nice career. I can see where that type of player was somebody that Kay [Yow] would recruit. She’s blue collar.”

Post-game interview with Coach Harper

On the win
I’m so very, very excited about this win. First of all, I understand that wins are hard to come by. I think this is a great road win for us. I’m excited because our kids are really excited, and it gives them a little bit more confidence that they can find a way to win. They did some really good things [Monday night], and I’m proud that we were able to come in, even if it might not have looked pretty at times, and get a win. An ugly win is still a win, and it may be a situation that that’s how we play this year and it may be that we make our opponents play ugly. A lot of teams win ball games that way.

Coach Harper shoots before practice Sunday at ODU.

Coach Harper shoots before practice Sunday at ODU.

On the good things
We switched defenses multiple times [Monday night against ODU], and prior to looking at the film, I feel like we handled those changes well. I was very pleased with the poise late in the game when they started making a run and we handled that run. I thought we had some kids that did not start off well and who weren’t having a good game but found ways to make plays when it counted. That’s a good sign. We rebounded the ball really well in the first half, not so well in the second half.

On the play of the bench
I think right now we’ve got a solid rotation of eight, and I think we’re finding combinations that work well together. We’ve found a few combinations that don’t work well together. And we’re trying to be strategic. I’m very happy that I’m able to get that rotation going.

On the starting lineup
In that starting five, we have leadership, and we have some kids that play really, really hard. We’ve got some kids that can score, some kids that can defend. We’ve got a good balance, and with that starting five, I’m really, really happy the way that Tia is coming off the bench and playing, and I’m really, really happy with the way that Brittany [Strachan] is coming off the bench and playing. I feel very comfortable with the way things are going in the lineup. [Editor’s note: The starters are sophomore forward Bonae Holston, senior forward Lucy Ellison, junior guard Amber White, senior guard Nikitta Gartrell, and freshman guard Marissa Kastanek.]

Post-game comment from ODU Coach Wendy Larry

Wendy Larry has been the head coach of the ODU women’s basketball team for more than 22 years and was a long-time friend of former Wolfpack women’s basketball coach Kay Yow, who died in January. Coach Larry made the decision for her team to wear pink uniforms to honor Yow. Her staff called Coach Harper’s staff to ask for permission to do so. Because the Lady Monarchs wore the pink jerseys, NC State wore its home jerseys.

On facing NC State for the first time since Yow’s death
I’m going to be honest with you. Once the game began, I don’t really think about [Kay Yow]. But it was before, the realization that after many, many years, there’s somebody else leading the Pack now, and they look a little different. You know, they don’t look very similar. (She laughs.) But Kay hasn’t left the cupboard bare. There are some nice athletes there, and I know that [former assistant coach Stephanie Glance] did a great job bringing in some players as well. I think the tradition will continue, and it will certainly go on and on and on. What a tradition it was.

Post-game interview with sophomore forward Bonae Holston

Bonae is from Newport News, Va., which is just a short drive from ODU’s campus. Several dozen family members and friends attended the game. ODU was one of the schools that Bonae considered attending before choosing NC State.

Bonae Holston (Photo by Peyton Williams)

Bonae Holston (Photo by Peyton Williams)

On playing before a hometown crowd
I was anxious before the game. I was really excited and wasn’t able to sleep the night before or the night before that. But once you start playing, you forget about that stuff.

On choosing NC State
[ODU] was the first school to call, and it was in my top four. When I was at NC State’s team camp [when I was in high school], the old coaching staff [at NC State] offered me a scholarship. I thought I could have a good college career at NC State. So, that’s why I came here.

On trying to stay out of foul trouble
Coach Harper told me that I’m going to get some fouls because of the way I play and the way we play. But I can’t get silly fouls, like for reaching in or getting fouls because I’m tired. Those are fouls I shouldn’t get.

On the takeaway from the ODU game
[ODU is] an athletic team. I think they’re the most athletic team we’ve played so far. In the ACC, you’re playing teams that are very athletic and that are very skilled. So, I think they gave us a dose of what we’ll see. And, I think this was a good win because we toughed it out.

Post-game interview with junior forward Tia Bell

Junior forward Tia Bell scored a career-high 15 points against Davidson on Nov. 20; she followed that up with 12 points Monday night in the win over ODU.

On facing a team that’s wearing pink
It’s emotional. There are constant reminders every day. I still have pictures of Coach Yow in my room. And when I see pink anything, it makes me think of her. We still have a lot of people who come up to us to express their support and concern, and I get emotional. But we know we have support, and it means so much to me to know that ODU would wear pink to show us support and that they’re fighting against [breast cancer].

On coming off the bench
I’ve always looked at it that it’s not really where I start but where I finish. Whatever I can do to help the team I will play that role. I like to give that burst of energy to my team by coming off the bench. When I sit on the bench, I get to look and get to see what my defender can do, so I get a head start when I come in. I try to use that to my advantage and help my team as much as I can.

Tia Bell (Photo by Peyton Williams)

Tia Bell (Photo by Peyton Williams)

On getting ready for games
I always talk to my mom, like a pre-game talk, for about five minutes. We don’t talk too much about the game; it just helps me to relax. And at the end, she always tells me to “Play hard. Cheer harder. And play smarter.” That’s the slogan she gives me before every game. I’ve been doing that ever since high school, and it puts me in a comfort zone that help me get ready.

On the learning process
We’re doing a good job of applying what we’re learning in practice, and we’re learning how to build on each game. I know in the first game [against Florida International], we had to work on defending screens on the ball, and now we’re really good at that and that’s one thing we can check off and can move on to the other. Coach always stresses that she wants us to peak in the middle and further into the season, so when the tournament comes, we’ll be stronger and go deeper, competing for a national championship. I think it’s going to be a learning process, but as long as we keep working hard, the execution will come.

On what motivates the team
It’s not too hard to motivate us because each individual on this team wants it’s really bad because of what we’ve been through the past couple of years. Now we get to finally focus on basketball. But [Coach Harper’s] energy level is so high that it just rubs off, and we want to play up to her power and feed off of her. Sometimes we get down, but she picks us up easily. She’s very positive. Her being very honest in the beginning helped build trust. One of the first things she came in and said was that she knew she had big shoes to fill but that the best person she could be was herself. And I feel like [the coaching staff] all came in with open arms, and they’re all funny. And they didn’t just come in and dictate everything. They came in and made it as easy as possible to put their system and philosophy in. They were really understanding and they let us vent and made themselves available. They’re very interactive. They were there at 6 a.m. workouts and made it easy for us to open up to them.

On the benefits of road games
The support level is not as high as it would be if we played at home. But road trips bring us together more. We have more time to spend with each other, whether it’s the coaches and the team and the managers and the support staff — everybody comes together. The days are a little bit different. We have walk through, pre-game, breakfast, film — so you get to concentrate a little more on basketball and what you have to do and your assignment. I don’t want to say it’s easier to play a road game, but you get focused more on the road. And it’s a great feeling to get a win on the road. Coming [into the game against ODU] I knew it would be challenge, and I knew we couldn’t sleep on them. Coming out on top meant a lot to me; it gives us confidence to know we can do it on the road.

Post-game interview with freshman guard Marissa Kastanek

In the four of the five games so far this season, Marissa has scored in double figures. Coach Harper also has said that she’s already emerged as one of the team’s leaders and that she doesn’t play like a freshman. The Lincoln, Neb., native scored 12 points against ODU and played a team-high 33 minutes.

On making an immediate impact
My AAU coach, Dan Lesoing — he really pushed me to push my limits. My goal in the eighth grade was to be on varsity as a freshman. Then, when I completed that goal, my next goal was to get recruited by colleges and to be able to play at a college. Once I achieved that goal my junior year, I was then preparing to play at the college level my junior and senior years. So I think Dan pushing me to the next limits was what has really helped me. And he really pulled the maturity out of my game. He told me that that pass will work in high school, but if you want to play in college, you have to do this and do that.

On finishing games
[Coach] Kellie has a new saying, “To put the pedal to the medal.” She said great teams can do that. And I think I can speak for the whole team and say that we want to be a great team. We knew that tonight [against ODU] that if we laid down and made it a game, we could have, but we knew we had to work really hard to not let that happen.

On the team’s improvements through five games
Our rebounding, and just knowing each other on the court. We’re starting to get better at knowing who is going to cut where and when and knowing the style that each person plays in Kellie’s offense. Another thing is intensity. We know what we’re doing now, and we’re not second guessing ourselves. We’re just flowing better.

On the importance of bench play
I’ve played on a team before in my life where we didn’t have a bench, and the starters played the whole game and if the bench came in, we lost our lead. When our bench comes in, we’re still as strong as we were with our starters. We don’t drop off, which is very advantageous. The way Kellie runs practice is that starters don’t have any priority over non-starters and vice versa. Everybody runs the same drills, and everybody does the same thing. Everybody does everything, and there is obviously accountability for the starters because they are starting the game and they’re starting the tempo. But, other than having the label of a starter, everybody has to come out and play with intensity.

Marissa Kastanek (Photo by Peyton Williams)

Marissa Kastanek (Photo by Peyton Williams)

On her first road trip
I’m not going to lie. I was really nervous. I was texting my friend, Scott Wood [who is a freshman guard on the NC State men’s basketball team], because they were just down in Florida [for the Glenn Wilkes Classic]. I asked him how was his first away game, what it was like to be away from home, being away from the fans. He said it was technically not an away game because there were no fans there. It wasn’t like a set home game for the other team. So, that wasn’t really much of a help. But I was just telling myself that God would take care of me in any situation and if I just played for Him that I was going to be OK. So when I got out there, it kind of reminded me of high school a little bit the way the fans were acting. Like, when we were being introduced, they’d say, “Who cares?” Well, we know we care. All the Wolfpack family cares. I think the big thing I need to pull away from this game is to shoot my free throws and not let the crowd distract me on my free throws. In the last couple of practices, I haven’t been shooting my free throws well, and I’ve been having to run for them. But I’m going to work on it. And the biggest thing — when there is a crowd against us — that also pulls us together, knowing that we are a family and we’re together.

On favorite moments with the team so far
I just love to be with them off the court. We have so much fun together. [Sharnise Beal, Nikitta Gartrell and Bonae Holston] live across the hall from me and Inga [Muniniece]. So, we have that connection. Emili, Kim and I are just crazy. We have aspirations to make these videos, and we have some short film ideas coming up. But I’m not going to tell you what they are about yet because we haven’t made them and I want them to have a good showing when we do. And Lucy [Ellison] and I are getting closer. It’s just so much fun to be a part of this team because even though the old coaching staff left, family is still a big thing and that’s a big thing for me because my family is so far away. And on the court, the most fun thing . . . Well, with the old coaching staff , blocking shots used to be the big thing, and [the players ] would chest bump when they’d get a blocked shot. Well, with this coaching staff, they don’t want us to jump because it’s usually a foul or the other team gets the ball. So, now Kellie says that we chest bump charges. So, when I took two charges in the Florida Atlantic game, and we had just talked about in film that we chest bump charges, and four people help me up and we start chest bumping, and it was really awkward because we were standing and was just bumping without jumping. It wasn’t a real chest bump. And then in the game against Davidson, I took another charge, and [junior] Brittany [Strachan] ran up to me and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Woo” [and just did a soft chest bump without jumping]. (She laughs.) And, just the excitement that we get and that Kellie brings to us is the most fun on the court, and the intensity that she brings. And she never quits. Like she said tonight, she wants to win, so we need to want to win. And I think that that carries over to us.

On learning how to take charges
I’ve never practiced charges before, but Kellie has a drill. And the rule is that one person stands under the basket in a defensive stance and the rest of the team is at half court, and they just charge you. They go and you have to take a charge. But the rule is that if you get a charge in a game, you get to sit out the drill next time. So, I always try to take a charge at least once a game so I can get out of the drill. But it’s beneficial. It helps us get our feet set and it helps us land safely. There is technique with taking a charge. You can’t just fall on your butt or smack backward. Both hurt really bad. Kellie is helping us land safely on these charges.

On getting stronger
When I came in, I hadn’t lifted that much. I had pumped a few bars, done the typical stuff. But [strength and conditioning coordinator Charles Stephenson] has got me — well, I’m not treated like a freshman. I’m doing the weights with Emili [Tasler]; she’s my weight partner. I’m doing obviously less than her, but I don’t have any less requirements. I’m getting bigger in that area. And one thing I’m working on is getting quicker. . . . Just working hard is the biggest thing and playing for God, and when I do those two things, everything just seems to fall right into where it’s supposed to be.

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