Commentary

NC State Wolfpack focus on positive

Kellie Harper's team knows 'people look to NC State' during the WBCA's Pink Zone

Originally Published: February 13, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Kellie Harper Mark Dolejs/US PresswireKellie Harper's Wolfpack are just 10-14, but only three losses were by more than 10 points.

After everything else that has gone wrong for NC State this season … hey, why not a four-overtime loss on a buzzer-beating shot? One couldn't blame the Wolfpack if, by now, expecting something bad to happen actually passed for "optimism." As opposed to, say, expecting complete and utter calamity.

Yet while her players have every reason to be feeling sorry for themselves, coach Kellie Harper is proud of how they're holding up.

"Our kids keep coming back every day and working hard in practice," Harper said. "They're amazing. We haven't dwelled on the negative. We keep them believing they can do things."

Harper is in her second season in Raleigh, N.C., after making an NCAA tournament appearance in her first. With the WBCA "Pink Zone" fund-raising effort of Feb. 11-20 on hand, Harper said her players know that, "People look to NC State during this time. Our kids play inspired and play motivated, and we know that all these pink games across the country are for a greater cause."

It has been just more than two years since NC State coach Kay Yow passed away after a decades-long battle against cancer. Harper, the former Tennessee point guard, has handled the transition with grace. She's very aware that the person who sat in the head coach's office at Reynolds Coliseum before she did faced a kind of adversity much greater than what NC State is going through now.

However, we can't judge all difficult times on that life-and-death scale. From the perspective of basketball, the Wolfpack players have been through the ringer.

NC State is 10-14 overall and 1-8 in the ACC. But the devil is in the details. Of their 14 losses, the Wolfpack were not competitive in only one: an 88-59 defeat at then-No. 10 Maryland last Sunday.

Take out that game, and NC State has lost the other 13 by an average of just 6.3 points. The most agonizing before Thursday were a 65-64 loss to then-No. 3 Duke -- after the Wolfpack had led by as much as 20 in the second half -- and by seven points each against three other ranked ACC teams: North Carolina, Miami and Florida State.

Following the Duke loss, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt reached out to Harper.

"Kellie will persevere," Summitt said when asked about that encouragement. "I know she has been very frustrated, but she will bring out the best in her team, no matter what. She's a great teacher and a great motivator."

Then came Thursday's quadruple-OT defeat at home to Virginia, in which the Cavaliers hit two free throws with 26 seconds left in the final extra period and a jumper as time expired for a 94-92 victory.

For the hard-luck Wolfpack, that game was just an absurd coupe de grace. Kind of like the plane getting hijacked at the end of Neil Simon's comic masterpiece of cascading misfortune, "The Out-of-Towners."

Harper was able to display her own dry-humored approach to it, noting that NC State on Thursday was down five players that she had hoped would all contribute this season.

"You know, the bench I have that isn't dressed out is pretty good," she quipped.

Three of those players -- 6-foot-4 center Hanna Halteman (concussion), 6-3 forward Tia Bell (knee) and 5-8 guard Emili Tasler (leg) -- either never got to play this season or are out the rest of the way due to their injuries. Lakeesa Daniel, a 6-4 post, is out dealing with academic issues.

Freshman Devin Griffin had her thyroid removed in the preseason but still was able to compete in 18 games until being sidelined recently by an illness. The Wolfpack are so depleted inside, the 5-10 guard Griffin (she's not actually quite that tall) was playing in the post.

[+] EnlargeBonae Holston
Peyton Williams/NCSU/Getty ImagesJunior forward Bonae Holston is averaging 16 ppg and 8.1 rpg, team highs in both categories, while shooting 51 percent.

Oh, and redshirt senior guard Amber White is playing despite a shoulder injury suffered Sunday against Maryland. It wouldn't be surprising if Harper regularly wakes up yelling, "Medic!"

She said it took her until nearly 2 a.m. to fall asleep after Thursday's loss, and when she woke up, many thoughts began to race through her head. Mostly that she felt bad for her players to have to keep experiencing these disappointments.

When Harper was coaching at Western Carolina, the Catamounts won a four-overtime game in 2008 and a three-OT contest in 2009. Harper says she recalls walking off the court after those games thinking, "I can't imagine being the losing team after something like that."

Of course, now she can. But she and her staff continue to come up with motivation for the Wolfpack players. She tells them that they need to be like pingpong balls: the harder you throw one to the floor, the higher it bounces back up.

Harper, of course, won three NCAA titles in her Tennessee playing career and watched the example Summitt set of how important it was to always keep expectations very high, but also pick up others when they're down.

"One thing that Pat is so good at is she makes all of her former players feel special at all times," Harper said. "It's really appreciated.

"When you lose -- especially some of the games we've lost this season -- it's tough to let it go, no doubt. But because I'm so competitive, I'm also ready to figure out how you go win the next one."

For NC State, that will be at Georgia Tech at 5 p.m. ET on Sunday as part of February Frenzy on ESPN2 (coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. ET). It seems quite odd to not have the Wolfpack playing in Reynolds on Kay Yow Court on this day. But the schedule didn't work out that the Wolfpack had any weekend games at home in February.

With everything else that has happened, that kind of figures, doesn't it?

"We already had our 'Hoops for Hope' game," Harper said of the Jan. 30 matchup with Florida State. "It was a huge success and raised a lot of money. It is an emotional time for a lot of our players -- always, they understand why pink uniforms are worn."

Junior forward Bonae Holston, who was in her rookie season when Yow died, scored a career-high 30 points with 10 rebounds that day against Florida State, with more than 6,000 fans rocking Reynolds. The Wolfpack came back from a 15-point deficit in that game and actually led by three in the second half, but lost by seven. Yeah, it has just been that kind of season.

But the Wolfpack players keep plugging away. Holston leads the team in scoring, averaging 16.0 points. Sophomore Marissa Kastanek, who was on court 55 minutes Thursday, is at 14.1. White, who was a freshman on Yow's 2007 NCAA Sweet 16 team and redshirted 2008-09 with an Achilles tendon injury, averages 11.9 points.

Harper tells her squad that these frustrating times will make them and the program stronger. Even a four-overtime loss can't break them.

"Our execution may not be my dream style right now, either offensively or defensively," Harper said. "But if every year I can count on the effort and the heart that I'm getting from this crew, then we're going to be OK."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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