by Mike Potter
N.C. State got its wish to play in the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament in its first season under Kellie Harper.
Tonight, the younger players on the Wolfpack - which hasn't been in the tournament since 2007 - get to see what it's really all about.
The Wolfpack (20-13) is seeded No. 9 in the Kansas City Regional and will take on No. 8 seed UCLA (24-8) in its first-round game at 9:30 tonight in Minneapolis.
An interesting sidebar has Harper (pictured) going against UCLA coach and fellow former Tennessee guard Nikki Caldwell, who was a graduate assistant with the Lady Vols during Harper's 1998-99 senior season - oddly the only time during Harper's career the team didn't win the NCAA title. Caldwell was a player on Tennessee's 1991 NCAA title team.
"I think Pat recruits highly competitive people, and I think that's one thing Coach Caldwell and I have in common," Harper said during Saturday's press conference in Minneapolis. "When you play at the University of Tennessee you're bound with all other former players, whether you played together or not, and that's the connection that Nikki and I have. I think each player that plays for Pat (Summitt) takes away something and for me, I've tried to take away poise during game situations and (I've) tried to take away running a classy program, and I think Nikki does the same thing. She's very professional, has a lot of energy, and has done a great job."
Guard Nikitta Gartrell is one of the Wolfpack's senior leaders.
"It's a great feeling (to be in the tournament) because my freshman year, I came to the tournament and I felt like, even though I didn't play, I was still a part of the team because in practice, we got the seniors ready for their tournament time," Gartrell said. "It's going to be a great feeling because I actually get to play this time around. Win or lose, this has been a great feeling and a great experience."
Freshman guard Marissa Kastanek stepped into a starting role for the Wolfpack this season and was named the ACC's rookie of the year.
"It's really exciting to be here," Kastanek said. "We worked really hard this season as a team, on and off the court, and I think it's just a great honor to be here. ... It's been a great season! My teammates have been awesome, my coaches -I love them Everything has been a dream freshman season for me. I'm really excited for the way it's going to end."
N.C. State vs. UCLA
[Sunday, 9:30 p.m., Williams Arena, Minneapolis]
NCSU leads series 5-1.
Records: NCSU 20-13, UCLA 24-8.
Audio: WKNC-FM 88.1, GoPack.com, UCLABruins.com.
Video: ESPN2, ESPNU.
Coaches' records - UCLA: Nikki Caldwell 43-20; Kellie Harper 114-77, 20-13 at NCSU.
Leading scorers - UCLA: Jasmine Dixon 15.3; NCSU: Bonae Holston 12.2.
Leading rebounders - UCLA: Jasmine Dixon 8.0; NCSU: Bonae Holston 6.3.
Assist leaders - UCLA: Darxia Morris 3.2; NCSU: Amber White 3.0.