A Coach’s First Season: The NCAA Tournament

March 21, 2010
By Cherry Crayton

Monday morning update: The NC State women’s basketball team’s season ended Sunday night as the Wolfpack fell to UCLA 74-54 in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in Minneapolis. Go to GoPack.com for a game recap and box score. Below is video from the team’s third day at the NCAA Tournament, including video highlights from the UCLA game.

Sunday update: The NC State women’s basketball team will face UCLA tonight at 9:30 p.m. EST in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. If you’re not in Minneapolis for the game, watch it on ESPN2 or listen on WKNC. As part of our ongoing series “A Coach’s First Season,” we’ve interviewed every player. After the jump are the last two getting-to-know-you player interviews in the series. They are with freshmen Kelsie Lliteras and Lakeesa Daniel; both joined the team in mid-season.

Up first are two videos of the team’s adventures during the NCAA Tournament so far shot by video coordinator Jason Rasnake.

Next, NC State coach Kellie Harper, senior guard Nikitta Gartrell, freshman guard Marissa Kastanek, sophomore forward Bonae Holston and junior guard Amber White met with the media covering the NCAA Tournament in Minneapolis yesterday. Here is what Coach Harper said will be the key in the game against UCLA:

“Transition defense, I think, is very key. They do such a great job of getting out on the floor and running, getting some easy buckets,and then you’ve got to figure out a way to score with them. Their defense is so tough and they change it up and keep you off balance, so I think those two things alone would enable us to be very competitive.”

Read all of the comments from Harper and the players here. GoPack also has posted a story that looks at the similarities between NC State and UCLA and an AP story with the headline: “Harper Wasted No Time in Getting Pack To NCAA’s.” And, The N&O has a story today in which it retells the story we previously reported in which Harper gave the players Weeble Wobbles during their road trip to Clemson in January. From The N&O:

The next day as the team boarded the bus to Clemson, Harper handed out the colorful egg-shaped toys to every player.

“Weebles,” are designed with a heavy bottom. When they tumble to the side, they pop back up. Harper explained to her team that they needed to be more like the toys.

“We had to work toward more resiliency,” she said. “We had to be able to take knocks and get back up.”

Read the rest of The N&O story here. Now are player interviews.

Q&A With Freshman Kelsie Lliteras

Freshman forward Kelsie Lliteras joined the team in mid-December after spending the fall semester as a part-time student at Durham Technical Community College. A native of Chadron, Nebraska, she played on the same AAU basketball team with fellow NC State freshman and Nebraska native Marissa Kastanek.

What it’s like to join a team mid-season?

Kelsie Lliteras (Photo by Tim O'Brien of NC State Student Media)

Kelsie Lliteras (Photo by Tim O'Brien of NC State Student Media)

Beforehand it was really difficult because we didn’t know if I was going to make it. But now I’m falling into the place and it’s something I’m working at. . . . I think practicing at the college level is something I’m getting used to. It wasn’t really a hard transition because I had three years like [fellow freshman and Nebraska native] Marissa [Kastanek] did [on the Cornhusker Shooting Stars AAu team] under coach Dan Lesoing. But my scheduling and going through practices and organization is what I’m learning to do. . . .[The team] welcomed me with open arms. They supported everything I did, and they helped me with everything I needed help with. They didn’t deny me anything. . . . .It’s been crazy. During ACC [league play], we had a period where we weren’t winning games. Then we started picking it up and winning games and went as far as the ACC tournament final and now the NCAA Tournament. Who wouldn’t want that? Everybody wants that. It’s exciting.

What do you think the NCAA Tournament experience will be like?
I don’t know. I think we will be treated like royalty. You get escorted and there will be a lot of media and you get a lot of respect from people. I know it will be different and a new experience.

NC State is in the same region as Nebraska, a No. 1 seed. Both you and Marissa are from Nebraska. What are your thoughts on potentially playing them?
I don’t think it will be any different than any other game. We’re just going to go out and play hard. We’re not going to treat it any differently.

How did you get introduced to NC State?
I got a call my senior year of high school out of the blue from Coach [Kay] Yow. She said she was interested in my talent and that I was offered an official visit. Over my official visit in October, that was when I verbally committed to NC State.

What led you to make that quick decision to come to NC State?
I wanted to get out of Nebraska and do something new. [NC State] was near the ocean and had better weather than Nebraska. And, of course, the coaching staff, and I knew somebody, Marissa, coming here. And when I came on my official visit and got to know the girls, I really fell in love with it.

It’s been widely-reported how Coach Harper re-recruited Marissa to NC State. What was your re-recruitment process like?
Kellie Harper came to my hometown once. We went out to dinner and we talked about what my plans were for college and what I wanted in a coach. And everything she talked about what was I wanted. She’s new. I’m new. It’s a learning process, and I’m trying to learn the process of things.

What did you tell Coach Harper that you wanted in a coach?
I wanted somebody who doesn’t really get mad at you or yell at you or pushes you to the side if you’re not doing something right. I wanted somebody who helps you and teaches you and will run you through things if you forget something. So I wanted a coach who respects you. It takes me a while to catch on and it can be a long process, so I needed somebody who can help me out and not give up on me. And I got that in her as a coach. I have faith in her. . . . She has high hopes for us. And her energy on the court—she’s just like another player. She has the energy to get you up and get you going. Just the way she acts, she lifts you up. And she’s been through this [as a player] and she knows what’s going on. So we all trust her.
How did you start playing basketball?
I started playing in the fourth grade. I was on a traveling team. We traveled to Wyoming and anywhere around Nebraska. And I started on the school team in my seventh grade year and that led on to high school and through college. Between the summers of my freshman year and senior year of high school, I played AAU [on the Cornhusker Shooting Stars] under coach Dan Lesoing. That’s what got me noticed. [My father and I would] travel eight hours one way [to Lincoln] for a three-hour practice on a Sunday night. Then, we would travel eight hours back home [to Chadron]. We would get in at about two or three o’clock at night. I’d sleep for two hours and get up and go to school. Sometimes we would hit blizzards and be on the road for 13 hours going 30 mph. It was crazy. My dad has been beside me. His support has gotten me through everything. If not for him, I don’t think I would be here today.

What have been the areas you’ve been focusing on to get better as a player?
I’m working extra with Charles [Stephenson], our strength and conditioning coach, and we’re doing extra conditioning and extra lifting. We’re working on my speed. What I want to accomplish is I want to get stronger in the post area but pick up speed so I can get up and down the court. I don’t want to be the slow, big bulky person who fills up a lane. I want to be able to keep up with the team. So we’re working on my speed and my strength.

On Dec. 17, you got into the game against Winthrop and took a shot with about 20 seconds left that went it, giving you your first collegiate basket. What do think of that basket?
I had no clue I was going to go in. And then when I went it, I was thinking, “OK. I can do this.” When I made that first shot, it was, “Oh my gosh, I just scored my first college basket.” It was a relief knowing that I got on the court and I did something, and it was a turn-around point for me in terms of giving me confidence that I can do it on the college level. That one basket made a big difference really.

What do you see yourself doing in the future?
I for sure want to be a paramedic. For my four-year degree, I’m interested in forest management, and then I’d like to further my education in the paramedics’ field. My dad and my brother are both firefighters and that fed my interest. I grew up around a fire station, and I’d help out and ride with them, and I got experience. Knowing that you stick out and people see that you’re doing something to help others and doing a good deed for society – it was amazing. I loved it. And that’s what I want to do—to help people.

What stands out to you about this season?

The wins and knowing that we are going to the NCAA tournament. That’s a huge accomplishment.

Q&A Freshman Lakeesa Daniel

Freshman Lakeesa Daniel, a 6-foot-4 post player, joined the team in January. A native of Roanoke Rapids and sports management major, she signed to play at Wake Forest during the early signing period in 2008 but never enrolled there. A few days after Daniel joined the NC State program, Coach Harper said this about Daniel: “She’s eligible right now. She had her first practice [Tuesday]. So the plans would be to have her sit out this semester. We’re excited about having her.”

You joined the team in January. What was your first impression of the team?

Lakeesa Daniel (Photo by Tim O'Brien of NC State Student Media)

Lakeesa Daniel (Photo by Tim O'Brien of NC State Student Media)

I like this team. The players are very talented, and the coaching staff are nice people. They help you out, and they tell you right from wrong. They support you academic-wise. If you need their extra time, they give it to you. And that’s what you need from a coaching staff: to take care of you off- the-court and the on-court. [Coach Harper] is a nice person, and I love her. She’s like a mother. She wants you to do better, so she pushes you and makes you want to go after it. That’s something that everybody needs in life whether they know it or not.

What are some things you’ve learned from Coach Harper?
To never give up. And even though you may feel like giving up sometimes, just try your best and give it all you got.

What have you been focusing on since you joined the team that you hope to build on for next season?
Pretty much everything. I’m trying to get the plays learned, and I’m trying to stay in shape. . . . In the off-season, I’m going to be running. I’ve got to stay in shape, and that’s the key. . . .I can’t wait for next season. This is a good experience to sit and watch, even just to see the crowds at games. Once I get out there [on the court], I’ll be used to it. I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine next year and won’t be nervous at first because I’ve experienced it. . . . It’s been a great experience for me and will help me to know what to look forward to next year. This is where I want to be again next year, too—at the NCAA Tournament.

What do you hope your teammates and fans will see in you next year when you’ll have the opportunity to play in games?
I hope they see how bad I want to win and they’ll see my motivation for the game.

How did you get interested in basketball?
I first picked up the ball when I was three. It was something I wanted to do, and I liked it. When I was nine years old, that was when I really started playing against other people. My family is a big fan of basketball. My uncle played in high school; he hurt his knee and couldn’t go on and play professional ball. My mother played in high school, too. And I had a cousin who is two years old than me, and I saw him pick up a ball one day and I followed in his footsteps. . . .Just playing ball and running up and down the court, I love it.

You originally were going to Wake Forest. So what led you ultimately to NC State?
[NC State] is not far away from home – about an hour away. And people here are so nice. I feel comfortable around them, and anybody would take that opportunity.

What do you want people to know about this program?
That we go hard and we give everything we’ve got to win and we want to show other kids that they can do it as well.

What will you miss about the seniors who will be graduating (Sharnise Bell, Lucy Ellison, Nikitta Gartrell and Inga Muciniece)?

Their crazy side. They are funny and hilarious. They are comediennes.

Who will keep that going next year?

Hopefully, I will. And [Amber] White. She’s pretty funny.

Tell us about yourself.
I listen to music. I sing. I can dance. I like to draw. I like to write poems. Actually, I’m working on a book about my life. I just wanted to tell about my life so people will know what I have been through and what I’m looking forward to in the future.

What do you want people to know about you?

I’m outgoing. Kind of shy at first, but once I get to know you, I open up.

Friday post:

Hanna Halteman, center (Photo by Peggy Boone of NC State Student Media)

Hanna Halteman, center (Photo by Peggy Boone of NC State Student Media)

The players and coaches on the NC State women’s basketball team leave this morning for Minneapolis, where they’ll play UCLA Sunday at 9:30 p.m. EST in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. If you live in Minneapolis or will be heading to the area for the game and are interested in helping send-off the team when it leaves the hotel before the game Sunday, e-mail me as soon as possible at cherry_crayton@ncsu.edu. Click here for ticket information.

NC State magazine’s “A Coach’s First Season” series is winding down. After the jump is an interview with redshirt sophomore Hanna Halteman. Check back with us on Sunday, too, when we’ll post more interviews leading up to the game. NC State magazine is not traveling to Minneapolis, but we will once again have Patrick Kinas of the Wolfpack Sports Radio Network guest blogging for us.

Q&A With Redshirt Sophomore Hanna Halteman

Since Hanna Halteman arrived at NC State in 2007, she’s broken her ankle and her nose; and this season, she sat out two months because of a concussion she suffered during a practice in late November. A redshirt sophomore, she’s a native of Pottstown, Pa., and played AAU ball with the 2008 Gatorade National Player of the Year Elena Delle Donne, a freshman at the University of Delaware who was recently named the CAA’s Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year.

It’s spring break this week at NC State. What has your spring break been like?

My day consists of sleeping, waking up, getting some homework done, coming to practice, eating and going to bed. Our spring break hasn’t been much of a break. From class is the only thing we’ve really had a break from, but I have so much school work to catch up on and I’m trying to get ahead with the traveling we’re about to do. But it’s enjoyable because we’re going to the NCAA Tournament.

Most of the team will be making its first trip to a NCAA Tournament. What have the coaches and the players that have been there (seniors Sharnise Beal, Lucy Ellison and Nikitta Gartrell and redshirt junior Amber White) told you to expect?

They said it’s a different ball game and it’s a totally different experience. And [Coach] Kellie [Harper] said that it’s worth it. We really, really wanted to go. For me, it’s been a dream to go. . . . [We have been extremely focused.] The regular season is long, and you have opponent after opponent. You prepare for an opponent and then you have to turn around and immediately start preparing for the next opponent. Once we start play in the tournament, that’s what it’ll be like. But we’ve had two weeks without games and we’ve been really been focused on getting better and improving our play. Against UCLA, I know we’re going to be completely prepared. And after that, we’ll be back in the mode of the rapid speed in preparing for the next game. . . . [Coach Harper has] given us plenty of rest. We had two days off after the ACC Tournament and then the weekend. It’s been nice to relax because I know everybody has been feeling tired. Four games in four days is a lot. Rest has been important. And I think this is where passion comes into play. I think everybody is so excited and so passionate about getting the opportunity to play at the next level. It’s the Big Dance, and I think that’s enough motivation in itself.

Hanna Halteman (Photo by Peyton Williams)

Hanna Halteman (Photo by Peyton Williams)

Describe what this season has been like for you.

It’s been an emotional roller coaster, with excitement and frustration and then excitement and then being nervous about whether we were going to make the [NCAA] Tournament or not. Now I’m extremely excited that we got in. It’s been great, and I’ve really enjoyed it and everything that has to go into a season, from the practices and just being part of a team to playing for Kellie. And it seems more fun than it has ever has been for me. There hasn’t been one time where I’ve thought, “Man, what am I doing here? This is so frustrating.” It’s a lot of work. Playing basketball at the college level is demanding, and I think sometimes it starts to wear on you. And if you’re not playing the way you want to, you can get worn down. But this year, I can describe it as being really fun.

What has made it fun?

I think it starts with Kellie because she is so passionate about the game and about her job and being our coach and our leader. It filters out from there. I noticed at one of the first practices of the season her excitement, and that excitement just bubbles over. You can’t help but get excited because of the energy level she brought and the whole staff brought. That helps lighten things up. . . . We take care of business obviously, but she does a good job of making it fun for us and trying to bring the passion out.

You missed two months of games and have played in just one game this season. How would you describe the role on the team and the importance of the bench?

It’s exciting to be a part of this team. Obviously, there’s some part of me that wants to be able to contribute on the court. But I know I am here for a reason, and I want to be able to contribute anyway that I can. Even some of the others who are on the bench have talked about how crucial it is for our bench to be excited. There’s definitely a difference when everybody is cheering and getting everybody pumped up on the court. When the bench isn’t active, we see a lull in play. So I think the biggest thing is noticing that there is the role on the bench. We’ve got to fill that, and if that’s the way we can help, then I’m excited about that. So we’re screaming and yelling to try to help in some way. . . . I want my teammates to see me as an encouragement. I want to be someone that they can rely on or lean on and somebody who I hope can bring a smile to their face. That’s really important to me. I want to be a good teammate and be there for them in any way that I can.

What would be the word you would use to describe the team?

Maybe “edge.” There is a fierce competitiveness that I have noticed among my teammates. We just want to win. You can tell when we lose that it hurts. I don’t know if there is one word, but something that encompasses the concept of edge — that competitive nature and that we want to win games.

What do you enjoy the most about being part of this team?

I think the opportunities that we have. I love being part of this team for the opportunity to — well, I look at it as an opportunity to share my faith. I feel like I’ve been put here for a reason and whatever that may be, I want to do that the best I can and be an example and share my faith. I feel like it’s been a really great opportunity that way to make a difference. . . . Being here, for me, is definitely more than about basketball.

What have you learned since being at NC State?

Learning how to not get too high with the highs and too low with the lows. I remember as a freshman I would have a really great practice and be so pumped and I’ll tell my mom, “I’m ready!” Then the very next day I’d have the worst practice of my life, and I’d be depressed about it. I think from being here I’ve learned it’s important to not define myself as a basketball player. I define myself as a Christian playing basketball, not a basketball player doing other things. That’s the biggest thing I wish I had known coming in — to not define myself as being basketball-only. It’s very up and down, so consistency is really important. I think it also shows in your play and every aspect of life. I think I learned that through all my injuries. My freshman year I broke my ankle. Last year I broke my nose. This year, the concussion. At first, I really let it get to me. As it kept happening, I learned to not ask, “Why?” but “What can I learn from this?” Especially from this concussion I had. I can’t put my self-worth in what I do as a basketball player.

How did you become familiar with NC State?

I didn’t even know about the Wolfpack until I started getting recruited. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to play for an AAU team called Fencore, and they are national champions. I played at a Christian school and for local traveling teams, but my sophomore year of high school, I transferred to a public school and played on a varsity team. From there, I got picked up by Fencore. I spent one season with them and didn’t play all that much. But I had the opportunity to play with Elena Delle Donne and [University of Connecticut starting guard] Caroline Doty, which was amazing. Elena got sick, and for [some big tournaments] I got minutes and that’s when the letters started coming. And NC State just stuck out in my mind. I remember when my mom handed me the first letter from them, and I said, “Oh, that’s a really cute mascot.” I really liked the wolf, and then when I got to know Coach Yow and realized more about what this program was about and the principles that the team is based on, I just felt like this was where I was supposed to be.

What was it like to play with Elena Delle Donne?

I think the first two weeks of shots I took in practice, I ate every shot I took. Elena just shot back every one in my face. It was definitely an eye-opening experience, and I got to see what it really takes to play at a higher level. I was playing varsity for my Christian school since I was in the sixth grade. . . . And I really didn’t know what it took or what it meant to potentially be a college athlete. So to play with [her] was amazing. It forced me to step outside of my box and gave me the chance to improve.

Why basketball?

I think my mom introduced me to the sport.  She played in high school and she is a huge fan. My first word was “ball,” actually. I think a lot of it came from my mom. We’d shoot outside in the driveway, and I played on little YMCA leagues. But I didn’t like playing when I was younger because the boys never passed to me. I wasn’t very good, and I kept playing mainly because I was tall. And the next thing I know, I fell in love with it. . . . There is something inside of me that just draws me to basketball. Even when I have time off . . . I find a way to get a basketball in my hands. I’m just passionate about it. When you love something as much as you do, it makes it worth it.

What do you want to work on during the off-season?

I have so many things to work on. I was out for two months for a concussion, and I lost a lot of weight and strength. I always felt like I’ve been playing catch up. . . . I feel like there is so much I can work on. I really enjoy the off-season because I really enjoy preparing. I love practice; I love lift weights; I love working out. I love to try to improve. I always want to work on my defense, closing out and moving laterally. And I want to work on my strength and my speed. I want to work on making myself available on the offensive end and being a threat. I have so many things. Anything and everything I can do to help the team.

How would you describe yourself, and what do you see yourself doing in the future?

I am definitely laid back. I’m the grandma. I go to bed early. I’m a health fanatic. I eat healthy. I love to be active. Whenever I can get outside, I’m outside. I love to go to church, and I’m involved in several different youth groups. I’m definitely probably the grandma of the team. . . . This team is unlike any group of people I’ve ever met. They are always entertaining and always finding something to laugh about. . . . I love basketball, and I would love to be involved in basketball some way [in the future], whether playing or coaching or involved in some other aspect. I’m in the entrepreneurship program here, and I’d like to start my own business. I really love people and I love kids, and I want to try get to involved in or start a mentorship program involving children and student-athletes. My dream job would be something along the lines of that, like using students through Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action and pair them up with kids, whether they’re in need or from broken families or in the hospital. My best friend growing up had leukemia, and he passed away when we were nine. I just feel like that this is such a hard road for them, and if I could help kids feel better, I would like to really do that.

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