A Coach’s First Season: Q&A with Kellie Harper

April 5, 2010
By Cherry Crayton
Kellie Harper before the first game of the season -- an 87-71 win over Florida International on Nov. 13. (Photo by Peyton Williams)

Kellie Harper before the first game of the season -- an 87-71 win over Florida International on Nov. 13. (Photo by Peyton Williams)

Tuesday update: Beginning Wednesday, GoPack.com will run the story on Coach Harper and the women’s basketball team that appeared in our spring issue over a three-day period.

This will be our last entry in the series “A Coach’s First Season,” in which NC State magazine followed Kellie Harper during her first year as coach of the NC State women’s basketball team. The culmination of this series was a 10-page feature in the spring issue of NC State. For our finale on the blog, we’ve got a Q&A with Coach Harper in which she looks back over her first year with the Wolfpack and answers questions from readers.

Thank you for reading our coverage, and thank you to Coach Harper, her staff, and the players for allowing us to be part of the season. Go Pack!

Q&A with Coach Kellie Harper

Describe what this first season has been like for you.
After having a week or two to reflect back on the season, the word I have used is rewarding. I’ve really enjoyed this season, and I’ve enjoyed watching these young ladies grow and buy in to what we want to do. I’ve also enjoyed watching the fans express their appreciation for this team, and that meant a lot to me. I wanted that so bad for our players. I wanted them to experience that. I had that as a player, and it’s an amazing feeling. You are representing so much more than just a team. You’re representing your university and your fans, and it’s nice that they appreciated what we did this year.

How did the season compare to the expectations you had when you entered the season?
As a competitive person and as a basketball coach, I would have loved to have had a few more wins. I can pick out the games and tell you which ones I’d love to play over. But I think realistically, we did well. If you had told me a year ago, in April, that we were going to win 20 games, play for an ACC championship and go to the NCAA Tournament, I would have thought that was pretty successful. So I think, though there is still a big part of me that wanted more, there is a part of me that puts things in perspective and is really proud of our accomplishments.

Which games do you want back?
I don’t really have any regrets after the season. I know it’s a process you go through — the ups and downs. And sometimes losses are good for teams, even though that’s hard to admit. But there are a few that I would have like to have had another shot at. I would like to go back and re-play the last four minutes of our Florida State game. I would like to have a chance at Georgetown again. I’d like to re-play our NCAA Tournament game. We could have had a few more wins on our schedule. I guess that’s the greedy part of me speaking.

What were the best decisions you made this year?
The best decision might have been making two trips to Nebraska [to keep the commitment of Marissa Kastanek, who was named the 2010 ACC Freshman of the Year]. Also I think the staff that I have—that was a great decision. They are phenomenal. I think making the decision to focus on our defense was really important to our success; it took some pressure of our offense. A lot of people talk about the decision to move Marissa to the point, and that was about the same time we found some success. I think that was good for our team and really good for [rising redshirt senior] Amber White. And I think how we handled the Duke loss [a 70-39 loss on Feb. 11 during the regular season] may have been the best decision we made as a staff. I don’t take credit for all the decisions; it’s a collective process. But when we made the decision to wipe that game away and start with a clean slate and we talked to our players about the final five games of the season, I thought that was huge. We were able to finish strong, even after a disappointing loss to Duke.

What did you learn from the players this season?
I knew this had to be a resilient group of young ladies, but I learned that they’re good kids. We were very blessed to be able to coach them. They are pretty competitive. They wanted to win, and they wanted to make their mark. They wanted something of their own, and I think — the fact that we can add “2010” to an NCAA banner — that they accomplished that.

How did you grow as a coach during the season?
I think I have grown. I’m always trying to learn. And it’s important to learn your team and to learn what buttons to push. This year I had to limit our offensive package because I didn’t feel that that was best for our players. I had to learn that through the season. There are also little things here and there. You learn about whether the players need shootarounds the day of the game or not. Little things like that you have to figure out, and it can take a while to figure out a team, especially when you don’t know them. I also feel like I gained some confidence about what we want to do and I’ve seen that a lot of our philosophies were executed and that they were successful in the ACC. That gives me confidence. I don’t know 100 percent of what we want to do next year Xs- and Os-wise, but I feel confident that what schemes we come up with next year will be successful. Not everything was perfect this year. So when I’m watching NCAA Tournament games at home, my wheels are turning up here and I’m trying to think of things that would be good for our team to implement next year. Sometimes I’m a fan just watching and sometimes I’m a coach and breaking down plays. After we lost [to UCLA in the first round], those first few games afterward were tough to watch — really tough to watch. Sometimes I’ll have the TV on and I’ll listen to it as I’m piddling around the house, and I’ll sit down and watch the last few minutes of it. And sometimes I’ll Tivo it and watch it later. It depends on who is playing. Do I see similarities between us and who is playing? That’s something that Pat Summitt said – that she is always a student of the game. That’s something I definitely see in her and I would like for people to be able the same about me.

What does the off-season look like for you?
Let me show you my planner. We’re in April. We are going to go to the Final Four. It’s our national convention. So I’ll go to business meetings, I’ll go to clinics, I’ll go watch practices. I love watching games. I have to represent the ACC as conference captain at various meetings. They give that to rookies. I really, really love going to Final Four. And when we get back, we can start phone calls to juniors. That will take up a lot of time. Starting on April 10, I have 11 speaking engagements. Then there are three days of recruiting and then some coaches’ meetings. And May is the same. We’ve got ACC meetings. We’ve got speaking engagements. I am taking some vacation the last week of May. But it is very, very busy. Very, very busy. I enjoy getting out and speaking, so it’s not a chore, but it is time consuming. So many people think that when the season is over, we’re done, but that is not the case. We have so many things we have to do to run the program here, whether it’s working on housing issues or recruiting or getting out and speaking. . . .We’ve had our post-season team meeting already. And what I like to do there is have our entire team together and then dismiss the seniors during it and have a significance about it. We haven’t done this yet, but we will also do individual meetings with returning players. Not only do I want to tell them what our staff feels like they should work on, but I want to hear from them what they feel like they need to work on. I think that’s good to get us all on the same page. Then, it would be up to them. We only have about three weeks of time to do any workouts with them. After that time, it’s on them to improve their game.

What will you miss the most about the graduating players (Lucy Ellison, Inga Muciniece, Sharnise Beal, and Nikitta Gartrell)?
I’ll miss their personality. I’ll miss their presence. Obviously on the court, I’m going to miss quite a bit. I’ll miss Lucy’s heart, Inga’s smile, Shar’s fire and Nikitta’s energy. Anytime you graduate players, it takes a piece of you. Even though I’ve only had one year to work with these players, I feel like they are mine. I love them like I love every player I’ve ever coached.

What will you remember about your first team at NC State?
These players were overachievers this year. And that is a great quality to have and to coach. That is fun to coach. Every single day, I enjoyed going to practice. There were a few days I had to motivate. But most of the time, the players came ready. They had self-motivation. And that’s fun to be around. I’m hoping we can build on that and use it moving forward.

What do you hope the players remember about this season?
After our last game [a 74-54 loss to UCLA], I told the players that I did not want them to look back on the season and remember that game. I wanted them to remember the growth. I wanted them to remember the run that we had at the end of the season and in the ACC tournament. I want them to feel good about the hard work they put in. And I want them to feel like that they were special.

What do you hope your players learn from you?
I hope they enjoy life. I hope they learn that every day is a blessing. I love what I do, and I hope they see that every day when I come to practice. And when they leave NC State, I hope that whatever they do, they love it and have a passion for it. Life is too short to just get through. I want them to have a fulfilled life, whether it’s with their career or their family. I want them to love every bit of it. Also, obviously I’m very competitive, and I hope they learn that — and not just to compete on the basketball court but to be the best at everything that they can do and everything that they can be.

Coach Harper’s Answers to Questions from Readers

What is your main focus for next year’s team?
Right now our main focus is getting our players stronger and more fit. I think that’s an area we can make improvements with our work ethic.

Describe the off-season strength and conditioning program.
We’re going to be more intense and more demanding. We want our attitude in the weight room to be different. We want to realize how important it is to work hard and get better, knowing it’s going to make us better as a team.

What is the biggest thing we could do as fans to help your program continue to improve?
I think, for us, more fans at the games. Any time a recruit comes to Reynolds and the gym is packed, it helps us. Also, continuing to talk about our program and our university and how wonderful it is. Getting that out there is important.

What is one area of improvement you’ll stress to your players during the off-season?
Again, our strength and conditioning program is going to be amped up and our players really need to buy in to how important that aspect is for their games. Xs and Os will come later.

You’ve mentioned several times that you took this job because you think you can realistically get to a Final Four here. Do you think this program can not only get to a Final Four but win a national championship?
Yes. If you get to a Final Four, you can figure out a way to win. It’s a stepping-stone process. Once we are able to get to a Final Four, our goals will change.

How is the center position shaping up for next year?
Right now [rising senior] Tia Bell is rehabbing and looking really good. We feel like she’s ahead of schedule. Obviously, she brings a little height but not a lot of girth. That is one of the reasons we want our players to be stronger and to be more physical, because we don’t have [graduating senior] Lucy Ellison coming back next year. With Tia and [rising junior] Bonae Holston, and with [freshman] Lakeesa [Daniel], who had to sit out this spring, that will give us some added size and length. It’s going to be a process for [Lakeesa] and learning to play at this level. She’s done a really nice job in practices, and I think she’s ahead of the game because of that. Then we’ve got [rising sophomore] Kelsie [Lliteras] and [incoming freshman] Kody Burke. Both of those players will be able to help us. I’m really excited about Kody and her athleticism and explosiveness. She’s not that 6-5 post presence, but she is a good body, and I think she will be successful eventually for us.

UCONN has dominated the season so far. Is this good for women’s basketball?
It’s good because people are talking about women’s basketball and people are tuning in to see what the hype is all about. People who typically don’t watch women’s basketball know that there is a dominant team. So it’s good to get people talking about our sport. And I think it’s going to require everyone else to elevate their game. I don’t think it’s a negative thing for our game.

How is a team like UCONN able to do what they do and maintain that for so long?
First of all, they are extremely talented to begin with. And then they are very well-coached and they work extremely hard. It’s very hard to get players up every single game. It’s a long season. Emotionally, it can be draining for players. But Connecticut is mentally tough enough to do that. They’re not trying to win the game; they are trying to beat you every single possession. There’s a difference. And I really think — obviously they are extremely gifted offensively and know how to score and they are efficient and they are as good as a defensive team that you’ll see – but I still think the mental aspect is what makes them great.

Do you anticipate recruiting the junior college circuit?
We have recruited some junior college players. For us, we have to be very careful with eligibility issues. There are definitely players out there that would fit our system and fit NC State. Though we’re not bringing in a junior college player this year, it’s definitely something we’re open to.

Do academic requirements at NC State impose new or unique challenges in recruiting?
NC State is a tough school to navigate through academically. And as a recruiter, you have to be careful that you’re recruiting players who can be successful at NC State. They have to be intelligent, hard working kids to be able to navigate through the different majors and to be successful.

Do you believe the women’s game has changed significantly from your playing days? If so, how?
The game has changed in the sense that there are more better teams out there. There is a lot more parity. Even comparing it to 10 years ago, the game is bigger, faster, stronger. I think a lot of that is due to kids playing at an earlier age. That’s more widespread. When I was growing up, I started earlier than any of my teammates. Now, that’s not the case. They start so early, and they’re so good at an early age.

How would you compare the local media support for NC State relative to the local media support at others places where you’ve played or coached?
First of all I think the media are very knowledgeable here. They understand the game. I’ve never been at a place where you had to share coverage with two other opponents.

What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of building a basketball program?
The most challenging thing has been to get recruits to campus. We believe we can sell them on this program and this university if we can get them here. We were not a Top 25 program this year and our name is not out there as much as some other schools. So we have to work even harder to get some players to visit us. Once we get over that hump, we’ll probably see some top-notch recruits coming in.

What’s your vision for the type of NC State team that we could see in three to four years and that could draw crossover fans?
I want to put five people on the floor that can shoot and that can score. I think that would make us extremely dangerous on an offensive end. It would make us tough to guard. And I really feel like that our team will always play hard and will always have a drive to be successful. And if that’s the case, we will be able to play defense. As long as we can get the fundamental players who can score, pass and dribble—that are very fundamentally sound—that’ll produce a high quality of basketball. I think people enjoy watching teams pass the ball around and score and an extreme effort on the defensive end.

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