North Carolina State has appeared in 20 previous NCAA tournaments over more than a quarter-century, but there was always one constant - the steady presence of Hall of Fame coach Kay Yow on the sidelines.
For the first time since Yow’s death, the Wolfpack have again reached the field of 64, where the ninth-seeded club will begin play in the Kansas City region Sunday under first-year coach Kellie Harper.
Their opponent in Minneapolis will be No. 8 seed UCLA, which hopes to make a splash after earning its first tournament bid since 2006.
A pioneer in women’s basketball whose name is now inscribed on North Carolina State’s home court, Yow lost a lengthy battle with breast cancer Jan. 24, 2009.
Named as Yow’s permanent replacement after coaching Western Carolina to two NCAA tournament appearances in five seasons, Harper didn’t waste any time leading the Wolfpack back for the first time since they reached the regional semifinals under Yow in 2007.
“The last few years they have been through a lot and they’ve been resilient,” Harper told N.C. State’s official athletics Web site. “This year they were still going through something with the coaching change, and they’ve shown a lot of resiliency and a lot of faith and stuck together.”
N.C. State (20-13) uses a balanced offense led by sophomore forward Bonae Holston, senior guard Nikitta Gartrell and ACC rookie of the year Marissa Kastanek, all of whom are averaging between 10.0 and 13.0 points.
The Wolfpack lost 70-60 to then-No. 9 Duke in the ACC title game March 7, but they had won seven of their previous eight to help secure their NCAA tournament ticket.
UCLA (24-8) also lost in its conference final as No. 2 Stanford claimed an easy 70-46 win in last Sunday’s Pac-10 championship, snapping the Bruins’ 10-game winning streak. UCLA has won its last 14 games that were not against the Cardinal.
A big reason has been the arrival of sophomore Jasmine Dixon, who transferred from Rutgers and was not eligible to play until the end of the fall semester. She leads the team with 15.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game.
No UCLA player has appeared in an NCAA tournament, but second-year coach Nikki Caldwell won a national championship while playing for Tennessee in 1991, and was an assistant coach on two more of the Lady Vols’ title-winning teams in 2007 and 2008.
Harper also attended Tennessee and, as a point guard, helped the Lady Vols win three straight NCAA titles from 1996-98.
“When you go through the (Tennessee) program, there is a mutual respect,” Caldwell said. “You know the sweat equity you need to put in under coach (Pat) Summit. So we are always going to root for each other because of that connection.”
The winner of this game will likely face top-seeded Nebraska in the second round.