A Coach’s First Season: A First-Person Account of the L.A. Trip

December 28, 2009
By Cherry Crayton

The NC State Alumni Association offices are closed this week, but the Wolfpack women’s basketball team has two games and will spend New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles, Calif. So we’ll post updates on the games from the week in this blog entry as part of our ongoing series, “A Coach’s First Season,” and later we’ll have a first-person account of the trip to L.A. from our guest-blogger: Patrick Kinas of the Wolfpack radio network.

A behind-the-scenes account of the team’s trip to L.A., from Patrick Kinas of the Wolfpack radio network

Patrick Kinas, left, interviews Coach Kellie Harper after the first game of the season on Nov. 13 as senior forward Lucy Ellison looks on. (Photo by Peyton Williams)

Patrick Kinas, left, interviews Coach Kellie Harper after the first game of the season on Nov. 13 as senior forward Lucy Ellison looks on. (Photo by Peyton Williams)

Sunday morning update: For a week where people around the globe count down the final hours of the final days of the year, the NC State women’s basketball team found out just how long a short day could be, and how short a long day was.  Make sense?  Of course not.  Try hopping on a plane and covering three time zones on a day, and doing the same three days later going the opposite direction.  Mix in a practice, a shootaround, a four-hour tour bus tour of Southern California, grabbing a few coupons from souvenir hawkers in Beverly Hills and a chance to celebrate three separate New Year’s Eve’s before returning home.  It’s no wonder that a day after getting back to Raleigh, that my brain feels like it’s 4 in the afternoon, while the clock on my wall reads 12:30am.  I’m wide awake, and I have no idea why.
The morning after the Wolfpack held serve at home against Seton Hall, the bus pulled away from Reynolds Coliseum at another all-too-early hour, however when you’re facing a big game the following night in a land over 2,500 miles away, well, you don’t just leave at your convenience. The team flight bounced from Raleigh to Las Vegas, literally, as the landing in Sin City felt like someone bet that the pilot couldn’t land hard enough to lose a few wheels. Well, despite his best efforts, we did land safely and then flew off to LA about 35 minutes later. Anyway, we left Raleigh at about 8am, spent about six hours of flying time in the air, along with our layover and arrived in LA a little before noon. Math doesn’t quite work on the body, but my cell phone didn’t lie.

LAX?  Kind of a busy airport. A fair amount of people roam through the terminals on a given day. Lots of red out there.  Green too. I know it was only a few days after Christmas, but the decoration committee didn’t have holiday hangover. The red and green were from the thousands of fans descending on southern California for the Rose Bowl between the Buckeyes and the Ducks. As we got to our bus, well, we met one of the coolest cats in Cali, our bus driver EJ.  Now EJ played the silky smooth part of our tour guide, along with chauffeuring the team around.  He showed up in a bus that was reserved for the Texas Longhorns a few days later when they cycle through LA for the BCS national championship game.  He’s driven them before, along with many other teams.  The outside of the bus was adorned with 2010 BCS logos, and as we started boarding the bus and driving around, there were many fingers pointed our wa! y by oblivious fans ostensibly thinking that Colt, Mack and the gang were aboard.  If you’ve never been to SoCal (that’s what the cool kids call it), the first stop is the best hamburger joint in the West.  Our bus unloaded at the busiest In-N-Out Burger in all of Cali, right alongside LAX.  The efficiency at this place couldn’t have been any better.  Henry Ford and assembly lines around the US would’ve been proud.  By the time we piled inside, there must’ve been 90 customers there, and exactly two registers.  We made our order in about 10 minutes.  We had our food in another 10.  Truly amazing.  There were about 20 people working behind the counter, all with singular duties.  One kid’s job was solely to take a peeled potato, put it on a stand, and pull down a lever to slice it. That’s it.  One potato down.  Insert another potato. Then another. They had three order-takers in the dri! ve through collecting burger orders at the rolled-down windows of each car. Our entire order was perfect, not an easy task when you have almost three dozen orders at once, and they still had time to hand out In-N-Out Burger stickers. Granted, there are only about four items you can order at this joint, all burgers. And seeing as though this was my first In-N-Out experience having only heard of the chain’s legacy through a Chevy Chase movie, my sincerest compliments to the girl at the register who chuckled at my smart aleck order of a bloody Mary, a steak sandwich and a steak sandwich.  She laughed either thinking it was incredibly witty, or incredibly idiotic, whichever the case, I was still pleased. I’m still hoping for a shot at a role on Fletch Still Lives a few years from now.

Anyway, from there, the team headed straight to practice at USC’s auxiliary gym at the beautiful Galen Center, and then headed to the hotel to check in.  A late dinner that night followed at the same complex that some of you may have seen profiled on Dick Clark’s Rockin’ Eve, when he tossed the celebration to LA Live. That area was a mere few blocks from our downtown hotel.  A very long first day was nearly over, and no one knew just exactly how tired our bodies were. We were back in the hotel around 10pm, which was 1am Eastern, and had an early shootaround on the Galen Center floor in the morning.

The Wolfpack took the floor that next morning as the USC men’s basketball team was finishing up, and Kellie Harper had a moment to reintroduce herself to Kevin O’Neill, who was coaching at Tennessee when she was a player in Knoxville, and after an awkward blank stare by O’Neill for two seconds after Kellie told him who she was, O’Neill beamed and the two caught up for a few minutes.

NC State’s team bus to the arena for the game that night felt as if it happened a blink of an eye after the team took off from Raleigh, but if the staff was worried that the team would come out heavy-legged, that was not the case. The Wolfpack played as spirited of a 40-minute contest as they had all season, and truly may have turned the corner in gaining full confidence in the new system. Similar to the Georgetown game a few weeks ago, NC State held a large second half lead, but gave the game away to the Hoyas.  Well, the Pack had a chance to do the same against the Trojans, but would not relent and earned a six-point victory.

The following day, the Wolfpack spent in LA as well, and after a morning practice and weight session that ended by about 2 p.m., EJ rolled us through LA, Venice Beach, Hollywood and Beverly Hills for a handful of hours. He was an enlightening tour guide, engaging us with his late-night jazz radio-style voice on the internal microphone. If had to guess, EJ would’ve finished runner-up to Billy Dee Williams for the Colt 45 ads. We bused by the hospital where Michael Jackson was rushed last summer before passing away; past the Fox and Jim Henson Television Studios; stopping at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, home of the Academy Awards; and EJ even gave us a stop-watch test as we drove through Brentwood, querying the team as he pointed out a home three blocks down that road and a home two blocks up that street if someone could run that in seven minutes.  Why seven minutes?  Evidently, according to EJ, that’s the length of time OJ Simpson would’ve had to run from here to there if he could’ve executed the double-murder, which led to the “Trial Of The Century”, which ironically about 10 minutes later, we drove by the courthouse that exonerated OJ in the criminal proceedings.

That first portion of our New Year’s Eve ended at about 7 p.m. at a diner in West Hollywood called Roscoe’s Chicken N Waffles. No kidding. Think of it as the Los Angeles version of the diner in the Blues Brothers where Jake Blues orders the two fried chickens and a coke with Aretha Franklin serving.  Only here at Roscoe’s, picture Aretha Franklin as a late 60s lifer named Mama. Now sweet Mama was a treasure – working at ole Roscoe’s for years, having waited on Ice-T, Snoop Dog and Rob Lowe. Yes. Rob Lowe. Explains a lot, doesn’t it. Rob Lowe was about as far away from The West Wing as possible.  Oh, and yes, in case you were wondering, the diner was placed squarely in the ‘hood. That would explain the police officer on duty outside as we walked in.  Menu was two pages, laminated, and everything they offered was some derivation of a chicken and waffle combination. I think even the orange juice had some chicken and waffle concentrate buried in there as well.  About 90 minutes later, all things chicken and waffle were toast (no pun intended), and we boarded the bus heading back toward the hotel, and from there the team scattered to ring in the new year, some staff members out and about, and others hanging in the hotel playing games or sleeping off a three-day trip to LA that passed at breakneck speed.

The team lost a day it’ll never get back on Friday, missing most of the pageantry that is New Year’s with the parades and major bowl games occurring while we were somewhere around 37,000 feet in choppy skies.  At least we did have our Australian pilot to keep us abreast of game scores during the flight.  Mind you, rugby and football are the two big sports down under, which explains why our pilot read the scores in no particular order or fashion.  For example, “In the Outback Bowl, it’s Northwestern 35 and Auburn 38”, and my personal favorite, “at the Rose Bowl, Ohio is leading Oregon 16-10.”  Who knew the Bobcats’ 2nd place finish in the MAC’s East Division meant a tie-in to the Grandaddy!  Beyond that, who knew Frank Solich’s team could beat the Ducks?  Doubt he’d look as suave as Jim Tressel does in the vest. But I digress. We landed at RDU at 10pm and Kellie’s squad came back with major memories of the trip, not the least of which was the team’s clutch 9th win of the season.

It’s now 2 a.m., I’m not the least bit tired, and still don’t know what day it is.  Happy New Year! — Patrick Kinas

NC State 59, USC 53

Wednesday night update: NC State redshirt junior guard Amber White had 17 points, 6 rebounds and 5 steals and senior guard Nikitta Gartrell shut down Southern California’s leading scorer and had a key basket as the Wolfpack women’s basketball team built a 16-point lead and then hanged on to defeat the Trojans 59-53 at the Galen Center in Los Angeles, Calif., on Wednesday night.

“This is such a good win for us,” first-year NC State head coach Kellie Harper told Patrick Kinas of the Wolfpack Sports Network after the game. “I thought our kids came out and played with a lot of poise. I thought we deserved to win. I thought we were the team that played harder tonight. I thought we had more fight in us. Just to look in our eyes, I thought we wanted more of it tonight. . . .

“It is going to be a Happy New Year now. I’m so excited.”

After the jump are more post-game comments from Coach Harper and Amber White. For a box score, go to GoPack.com.

Sophomore forward Bonae Holston and freshman Marissa Kastanek scored 10 points each for NC State in the first half, when the Wolfpack also used an aggressive man-to-man defense to hold USC to just 22 percent shooting and force the Trojans’ to commit 14 turnovers. NC State converted those turnovers into 15 points, en route to building a 33-19 halftime lead, which the Pack extended to as many as 16 points early in the second half.

But USC gradually chipped away at the lead in the second half, when the Trojans scored 15 points off of NC State’s 10 turnovers and made 7 of 11 free throws. A Daniela Roark layup pulled the Trojans to within 1, 54-53, with 3:14 left.

After a missed shot from NC State, USC had the opportunity to take the lead but the Trojans couldn’t covert and White grabbed a defensive rebound. On the Pack’s ensuing offensive possession, Gartrell had an offensive rebound and then penetrated and scored on an old-fashioned 3-point play, extending NC State’s lead to 57-54 with 1:52 left. White’s two free throws with 24 seconds left sealed the victory.

Gartrell finished with 9 points, 7 rebounds and zero turnovers. With help from reserve Sharnise Beal, she also contained the Trojans’ leading scorer, sophomore guard Ashley Corral, who entered the game averaging 16 points. Though she played the entire 40 minutes against NC State, Corral made just 1 of 12 shots from the floor and scored 6 of her 8 points from the foul line.

Holston finished with 16 points and 9 rebounds for NC State, and Kastanek had 12 points and 4 rebounds.

NC State improves to 9-5, and USC is 6-5.

Notes: NC State redshirt sophomore guard Emili Tasler sprained her right ankle early in the second half and did not return to the game. . . .The Trojans wore pink T-shirts during warm-ups and pink shoelaces in remembrance of former NC State Coach Kay Yow. . . . The Wolfpack will spend New Year’s Eve in L.A. and return to Raleigh on Friday. Look for a post from guest blogger Patrick Kinas of the Wolfpack Sports Network in the coming days about the trip.  . . .  NC State will close out its non-conference schedule on Monday, Jan. 4, when Columbia visits Reynolds. Game time is 7 p.m. The Pack open ACC play on Thursday, Jan. 7, at 7 p.m. against Maryland at home.

Coach Harper’s Comments to the team in the locker room after the game

Post-game comments from Coach Harper, as told to Patrick Kinas of the Wolfpack Sports Network

On not letting USC overtake the lead
I thought when USC was making its run tonight that it was off of our turnovers and our fouls on the other end or offensive boards. . . . I thought . . . we started playing not to lose rather than to win. And we talked about that. [We told the players,] ‘You’ve got to be tough. Yeah, [the Trojans] scored and are making a run and you’ve got to go out and combat that,’ They did. I’m proud of our kids. I think we needed a win like that against a good team. . . . I’m excited.

On NC State’s quick start
[USC] didn’t have near the energy that we had early on. I don’t know what that’s due to. I couldn’t say, but our kids didn’t lack energy tonight. I thought we had it the entire game. We did make some mistakes down the stretch, and we allowed them to cut the ball game closer. But we consistently had energy, even throughout those tough times. So, I’m really proud of us for that. Several times we really handled our scouting reports for the team very well, and I’m proud of that.

On shutting down USC’s leading scorer, Ashley Corral
It started with Nikitta. Nikitta had it in her head that [Corral] was not going to score. I think Nikitta’s speed and athleticism really distracted her, and she wasn’t able to free herself as easily. And I thought Sharnise Beal came in and had some good minutes guarding her as well. Those two combined for a great defensive effort on that kid. She’s good.

On the play of guard Amber White

Amber was able to get it into the paint some. She missed a few there in the second half that I thought she could get down. She can score those, and she has the ability to get the foul line. Obviously, in the second half when Emili sprained her ankle, Amber had to go the distance the rest of the way. For a second there, I was a little concerned that she may lose some of her intensity. But she didn’t. She contained that and played with poise, and I was really excited about her play down the stretch.

On going forward as NC State opens ACC play Thursday
I think this gives us some confidence and I think our players understands that some of the things we’re preaching are working, and I think they have to feel good about that. And, they have to feel good about their energy level. A lot of times when you can go out and win the way you want to win, it’s a snowball effect. They’re going to step out there again with the same level of energy. There have been several games where you can come in and watch out team play and it was low energy, think back to Wisconsin game [which NC State lost 53-48]. But I think we’ve really improved in that area.

Post-game comments from redshirt junior guard Amber White, as told to Patrick Kinas of the Wolfpack Sports Network

On not letting USC overtake the lead
We went in at halftime and before the coaches came, we talked about getting them while they were down. We saw the same thing happen at Georgetown [in which NC State built a double digit lead before losing 67-66] and we’re still kind of sick about that loss. So, we wanted to get after it and come out with a win.

On making better decisions as the point guard
I’m really, really trying to focus in on film. When we get in there to watch film after games, Kellie tells us exactly what we need to do. And I’ve been listening to Coach Jon and Coach Kellie and trying to go out there and execute because we have really good film sessions and I’m trying to let that carry over onto the court. . . .I was getting my feet wet when I first came out there [after missing last season with an Achilles injury] and was just really excited to play. Now I feel like I’m really becoming a student of the game. . . . Listening to the coaches and execute everything they put down on paper.

On the play of Nikitta Gartrell
[Nikitta] came out and had it in her head that if [Corral] was going to score that it was going to be really hard for her to score. She did a great job, and our second line tried to help out if she got beat, but she did a great job on her.

On her New Year’s resolutions
To keep progressing and to keep getting better.

Monday night update: Sophomore forward Bonae Holston scored 20 points and senior guard Nikitta Gartrell added 13 points and 5 assists as NC State defeated Seton Hall 68-57 Monday night in Reynolds Coliseum. Get a box score and a game recap at GoPack.com.

“This was a good win for us, and we did some good things. . . .  [W]e didn’t have a great start and we had too many unforced turnovers, but we had some great runs,” first-year NC State coach Kellie Harper said after the game. “I was proud that we were able to maintain the lead down the stretch and finish strong.”

Notes from the game and comments from Holston, Gartrell and Harper are after the jump. Also after the jump is an excerpt of a profile of Coach Harper published on ESPN.com.

The Wolfpack, which improve to 8-5, will leave Tuesday morning at 6 for L.A., where they’ll face the University of Southern California on Wednesday at 9 p.m. (EST) and spend their New Year’s Eve. Their next home game will be on Monday, Jan. 4, when they meet Columbia at 7 p.m.

Notes from NC State-Seton Hall Game

  • NC State got off to another slow start, missing 10 of 13 field goals and having 4 turnovers to fall behind 14-8 heading into the second media timeout with 11:33 left in the first half.
  • After the second media timeout, NC State turned up its defensive pressure, holding Seton Hall scoreless for nearly 7 minutes, to reel off a 22-4 run in which the Pack scored 16 straight points. Sophomore forward Bonae Holston, who scored 13 of her game-high 20 points in the first half, made a layup with 4:01 left in the half to give NC State a 30-18 advantage.
  • But NC State followed that up with 3 missed shots and 3 turnovers on its next six offensive possessions as Seton Hall outscored NC State 13-4 in the final 4 minutes of the half to cut the lead to 34-31 by the break. “When we made our runs, we were more energetic and we had high energy – and that’s what we talked about [as] the keys to the game. Causing turnovers and scoring off of turnovers pushed us, but then I think we got lax with our press and weren’t as aggressive,” senior guard Nikitta Gartrell said.
  • After intermission, the Pack and the Pirates traded baskets for the first 10 minutes of the second half and led 45-44 with 9:53 left. But NC State held Seton Hall to just three field goals and out-rebounded the Pirates 15-7 in the last 9 minutes of the game to outscore them 23-13 down the stretch. During the decisive run, the Pack grabbed 7 offensive rebounds, which they converted into 11 points. We kept harping on it in every timeout that we were getting crushed on the boards. . . . I wrote ‘box out’ on my little white board about 20 times tonight,” Coach Harper said. “I thought we started the game boxing out tremendously and then I thought we finished boxing out well. It’s the middle part we’ve got to work on.”
  • In addition to her game-high 20 points, Holston had 7 rebounds.
  • NC State senior guard Nikitta Gartrell had 13 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds.
  • Redshirt junior guard Amber White had 5 steals. She also had 8 points, 3 assists and 5 rebounds.
  • After having more than 30 turnovers in its one-point loss to Georgetown last week, NC State cut that down to 16 against the Pirates.
  • NC State had 7 blocked shots, getting 2 each from Holston and junior forwards Brittany Strachan (8 points, 4 rebounds) and Tia Bell (7 points, 7 rebounds).
  • Seton Hall’s leading scorer, Nicole Emery, fouled out with 4:26 left in the game. She scored 12 of her 19 points in the first half.
  • NC State assitant coach Richard Barron was not at Monday night’s game because he was on the road recruiting. It’s the second time this season that an assistant coach has not been at a game because of recruiting. Stephanie McCormick missed NC State’s 66-53 win over Winthrop on Dec. 19.
  • The Pack will meet at 6 a.m. at Reynolds to begin their travels to L.A. for their Wednesday night match-up with University of Southern California, which is coached by Michael Cooper, who played for 12 seasons with the NBA’s L.A. Lakers and was the head coach of the WNBA’s L.A. Sparks for seven seasons. NC State will spend New Year’s Eve in L.A. and return to Raleigh on New Year’s Day. Of traveling to L.A., Gartrell said: “I think we can’t get caught up on the hype of going to L.A. and having fun outside of basketball. . . . Take care of business first, then you can focus on what’s going on outside of basketball.” Holston added: “I think it’s good to have a quick turnaround because you don’t have time to think about anything else.”

Comments after NC State-Seton Hall Game

Video of Coach Harper’s post-game comments with Patrick Kinas, the voice of the Wolfpack women, is below.

ESPN.com Profiles Coach Harper

Monday update: Mechelle Voepel, one of the premiere writers and prominent authorities on women’s basketball, had this piece published on ESPN.com today about first-year NC State head coach Kellie Harper; it’s titled “Harper quickly finds a home at NC State.” One snippet:

A year ago, Harper was at Western Carolina, already a successful young head coach who everyone assumed would make the jump to a larger conference sooner rather than later. Indeed, this past spring, she moved east and took over at North Carolina State.

You could say Harper has every advantage as a coach. Having started at point guard for three NCAA title teams at Tennessee (1996, ’97 and ’98) is the women’s hoops equivalent to a Harvard MBA in the business world, right?

Add in that at age 32 she has so much energy that she … well, actually practiced for church-league games, and Harper was clearly a dream candidate for moving up.

But you could also say no coach on the women’s side of hoops has ever had two such iconic figures hovering over her career. However, if Harper was of the personality to be intimidated by that, she wouldn’’t have played for Pat Summitt nor taken over for Kay Yow.

Read the full story at ESPN.com.


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One Response to “A Coach’s First Season: A First-Person Account of the L.A. Trip”

  1. Q McCall says:

    Just wanted to say that I appreciate the depth of information you’ve provided here!

    We’ve posted a gallery of 217 pictures from the game at SwishAppeal.com that I thought you might enjoy:

    http://www.swishappeal.com/2010/1/1/1229291/photo-gallery-2009-usc-basketball

    Good luck on the season!

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