Commentary

Caldwell's Bruins oust Harper's Pack

One moves on, one goes home, but Summitt proteges find success in 2010

Originally Published: March 21, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- As the years go by and they are further and further removed from Rocky Top, coaches Nikki Caldwell of UCLA and Kellie Harper of NC State won't be asked nearly as much about their common ground at Tennessee.

[+] EnlargeUCLA
AP Photo/Hannah FoslienJasmine Dixon, a transfer from Rutgers, led four UCLA players in double figures with 17 points.

They will be identified with the programs they recently have taken over, Caldwell two years ago and Harper just this season, and their respective coasts.

If all goes well -- and considering the starts both are off to, it looks like it will go well -- they will be representatives of West Coast versus East Coast, Pac-10 versus ACC, blue versus red … not the Smoky Mountains, the SEC and orange. But, certainly, there always will be at least some ties that bind.

On Saturday, Caldwell's Bruins won their first-round NCAA tournament game against Harper's Wolfpack 74-54. Jasmine Dixon, a transfer from Rutgers, led four UCLA players in double figures with 17 points.

The victory earned UCLA a matchup with No. 1 seed Nebraska on Tuesday. The Bruins have faced another No. 1 seed, Stanford, three times this season -- and lost all three games. With Stanford and Nebraska being ranked 2-3 for a lot of this season, having faced one so much is sure to help UCLA prepare for the other.

"Nebraska is a team that's very polished," Caldwell said. "There's a lot of similarities with Stanford. Through Pac-10 play, I feel like we had the opportunity to go against opponents like Nebraska."

The Huskers, who started Sunday night with an 83-44 win over Northern Iowa, got a chance to see a UCLA team that plays a type of pressure defense Caldwell calls "chaotic." Caldwell said defining a defensive identity is one of the primary things the Pat Summitt "coaching tree" has learned from the 1,000-plus game winner.

"She taught us some things," Caldwell said of Tennessee's longtime mentor, for whom both she and Harper played. "If you know how to defend and what your scheme is, that's half the battle right there. Her legacy will continue. We all carry -- I know Kellie does -- our experience, our Final Fours, our championships, through our kids now.

"And I was fortunate to be behind the scenes with [Summitt] for six years [as an assistant], so I had a different appreciation for what it meant to prepare your team for this time of the year. You take that with you, and you mold it to your team. The same thing that you require of a [Candace] Parker or an [Alexis] Hornbuckle, I require those things of my kids."

Harper has done the same, first as a head coach at Western Carolina and then taking over for the legendary Kay Yow at NC State. The emotional components of becoming the leader of the Wolfpack after Yow were greater than would be the case if replacing almost anyone else at any other school.

Harper was refreshingly forthright Sunday about the difficulty of that.

"Every decision I made, I questioned and second guessed," she said. "I tried to be very conscientious about everything. What I said to players. Letters I wrote to alumni. What I said at the Wolfpack Club caravan. Everything I did, I wanted to do it right. And for me, that's been a big part of this season."

All things considered, it's hard to see how the Wolfpack's first year under Harper could have been much better. The team finished 20-14, made the ACC tournament championship game and got an NCAA berth.

"They really took on a winner's mentality," Harper said of her players. "They began to walk on the court with a little swagger, believing they were going to win. And it didn't matter who our opponent was. Sometimes we would win; sometimes we would not win. But we believed. And I think that's the first step. Also, when you walked in the locker room after a loss, they were hurt. And if you don't have that hurt inside, you don't have a winner's mentality.

"Strategically, we started playing to our strengths, which for us this year was just playing hard, playing defense and rebounding. Unfortunately, tonight, we weren't able to do what we do well. But for the most part this season, the things that we could control, our team controlled."

It was hard to do that against a UCLA squad that has won 15 of its past 17 games, with both losses to Stanford.

"Stanford's a very experienced team, well rounded, balanced attack -- and so we've had to guard that," UCLA's Erica Tukiainen said of what the Bruins can carry over to facing Nebraska. "We've had to adjust our offense and defense, but at the same time we're constantly emphasizing that we have to play our kind of basketball. We're going to rebound, trap hard, get the ball inside to Jasmine and Markel [Walker], and from there, work outside."

The Bruins have learned a lot from Caldwell, just as the Wolfpack have from Harper.

"They actually started to buy into this system last summer, and it's paid off for them," Caldwell said of her players. "And it's gotten them to the point where they are today."

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.

ALSO SEE