RALEIGH – N.C. State women’s basketball coach Kellie Harper considers her second year as coach at Western Carolina a case study for what can go wrong.
As the Wolfpack prepare for Harper’s second season as coach, she’s reviewed her previous sophomore season in 2005-06 and culled what she could from a year where everything went wrong and the Catamounts finished with a 9-20 record.
“The worst of my career,” said Harper during State’s media day on Friday. It came on the heels of a successful first season where the Catamounts captured the conference title and made the NCAA Tournament.
Avoiding a second-year slump is Harper’s mission this season, along with the continued growth of a Pack team that overcame long odds and emerged as one of the highlights of the 2009-10 season.
The Pack, riding its hit-the-floor hustle, finished with a 20-14 record and reached the finals of the ACC Tournament. It also earned a berth into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.
To achieve similar success or better, the Pack expects to employ the same determination and gusto that guided its play in the second half of last season. It will need to overcome issues with depth and a lack of height, and determine who will consistently score points.
“We’re still not the most talented team in the ACC, so we’re going to have to overachieve,” Harper said. “I’m OK with that, they’re OK with that.”
Players say they don’t know any other way.
“We’re always going to work hard and play hard,” State senior forward Brittany Strachan said. “We want to get after teams, we want to stay aggressive. Leave it all out there on the floor.”
State sophomore guard Marissa Kastanek collected her share of floor burns last season and became the team’s poster-child for effort. She earned ACC freshman of the year honors and was the team’s third-leading scorer (10.9 per game).
Harper praised Kastanek for leadership entering this new season, where she’s helped to corral a group that features three seniors, three juniors, two sophomores and five freshmen.
Kastanek, the 5-foot-9 guard from Lincoln, Neb., said leading by example hasn’t been difficult with a group that genuinely bonds. Eight of the players live in dorm rooms on the same floor. She said when the team-wide text message goes out to meet at Mellow Mushroom, nearly the entire team responds.
She's allowing her teammates to call her the "Nebraskan Assassin," for her 3-point prowess.
“We’re so close as a team,” Kastanek said. “It’s just one of those things that we always try to stick to together, always try to do things together. That carries on to the court.”
That’s a major reason Harper said she doesn’t foresee her sophomore season developing anything like the disappointing second season her team had at Western Carolina.
Then, she said, the team struggled with chemistry issues of merging current and incoming players, something that slowed basketball growth. There was also a lack of player leadership with just one senior.
“We have great leaders with this group,” Harper said. “So you start off ahead of the game.”
Harper will call on seniors Strachan, Amber White and Tia Bell.
Bell, a 6-3 forward, missed 13 games last season after injuring her left knee and undergoing surgery. She rehabilitated the knee and returned to the court in August, though tore the meniscus in the same knee while playing pick-up.
She is currently working individually with trainers and is expected to return to team workouts in two weeks. “I’m learning to trust it again,” Bell said. “I’ll be back, I’ll be ready.”
Holston, the 5-11 forward from Newport News, Va., led the team in scoring last season, averaging 11.7 points per game. Lacking depth and needing scoring power, Harper will expect more.
“With this team, I probably will have to do more scoring than I did in the past, but I don’t have a problem with that,” Holston said. “As long as I do the things that the coaches ask me, scoring, it’ll come.”
Harper said Holston, whose game extends beyond the post, has committed to becoming the consistent game-impacting player they’ve seen in spurts. Holston has accepted her role and doubled her effort.
“She is a lot better than she was last year,” Harper said. “She needs to establish herself as a go-to player for us to be good.”
The Pack will aim for a 10 player rotation this season, but their depth will be determined how quickly younger players like freshman Myisha Goodwin-Coleman pick up the system. Harper said the freshman will contribute in a significant way.
And if the Pack can muster a group effort, their coach may be able to avoid a repeat of her sophomore coaching slump of the past.
“I just don’t think I’m going to see that with this group,” she said.
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