Emotion, Whittington driving forces for NC State

RALEIGH, N.C. -- When last we saw Khadijah Whittington, she was playing her heart out at the ACC tournament in Greensboro. Just a figure of speech, mind you. She still has plenty of heart left.

That's good. Because No. 4 seed NC State, which faces No. 13 Robert Morris in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday (ESPN2, noon ET) at the RBC Center right here in the Pack's hometown, will be relying a lot on Whittington in the NCAA Tournament.

Whittington is the junior alongside four seniors in the Wolfpack's starting lineup. Her competitive spirit, which spreads to everyone on the court with her, makes Whittington as much a leader as anyone on NC State's roster.

"I think it will carry over," Whittington said of her outstanding play in the league tourney. "Because it's something that I want. I think we all have a lot of emotion going into this tournament."

For obvious reasons, of course, with head coach Kay Yow battling a recurrence of breast cancer. Yow, who turned 65 on March 14, is very, very ill. No one has to say -- or wants to say -- the exact words about how serious this is. Everyone knows. On top of that, Yow lost her father earlier this week. The power of her love for her players and for the game of basketball is what's sustaining her.

The players return those feelings. On an NC State team that has been buoyed but not overwhelmed by emotion all season, the 6-foot-2 forward Whittington epitomizes what the Wolfpack are all about.

"We really don't talk about it a lot, we just go out and play with our hearts," she said. "We're playing for a great cause. Coach Yow deserves it."

And so do these Wolfpack players, who have won 10 of their past 12 games, including victories against Duke and North Carolina, two teams that are No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. NC State is a group that strives for -- and usually gets -- balance, yet Whittington's stats, 10.2 points and 10.6 rebounds a game, still stand out.

She is just one of those players who always seems to be working her tail off to get position. And even if she doesn't get the rebound, she's going to put up a fight for it. Relentless is the right word for her.

"I think I've always been hungry for rebounds; that's just a part of my game," said Whittington, who's from Roanoke, Va. "I like to get the ball."

Of course, the 72-65 victory over North Carolina on Feb. 16 was a turning point for the Wolfpack. It came right after a loss at Georgia Tech, and it displayed just what kind of team NC State could be.

The fact that win came the same night that "Kay Yow Court" was dedicated at Reynolds Coliseum -- the Wolfpack women's regular home -- made it all the more significant.

"It was just putting everything together. When we play good defense, our offense comes," Whittington said. "When we beat Carolina, our defense buckled down. We had been getting beat middle a lot, and those practices to work on that were crucial. The emphasis that the coaches put on defense made us step our game up."

The ACC tournament semifinal victory over Duke was another high for the Wolfpack, despite the loss in the final to the Tar Heels.

"There's just something about beating the No. 1 ranked team it gives us confidence," Whittington said. "Still, it doesn't necessarily mean anything going into the tournament. Because anybody now is capable of anything. We're just playing by the day. We're not looking ahead or back, just looking at the moment"

And their coach is doing the same thing.

"When we finish up," Whittington said. "I don't want to be saying 'shoulda, coulda woulda.' I want us to do it."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.