- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Markeisha Gatling is from Raleigh, N.C., so it seems no surprise that she's playing basketball at NC State. Just the opposite for Kody Burke, who grew up in Northridge, Calif., an entire nation away.
However ... here's the interesting twist: Burke is actually the one whose route to the Wolfpack was more direct. Even way out in the Golden State, she developed an appreciation for the ACC. And when the chance came to play for an ACC school, she didn't hesitate to move three time zones away.
Meanwhile, Gatling originally committed to UNC Charlotte, ended up at Gulf Coast Community College in Florida, and then found herself back home in Raleigh playing in Reynolds Coliseum after all.
Now the two seniors are leading a Wolfpack team that has a new coach and, you could say, a new outlook. This week for the first time since 2007, NC State is ranked in the Associated Press poll, at No. 20.
The Wolfpack are 14-1 overall and won their ACC opener Sunday against then-No. 20 Syracuse 67-61. After going 17-17 and ending last season with a WNIT loss to James Madison and coach Kellie Harper's departure, NC State is one of the best "surprise" stories of this college season so far.
Hey, Wolfpack coach Wes Moore needed something to cheer him up after the torturous NFL season his beloved Dallas Cowboys just put him through. NC State's success so far has stirred a fan base eager to get behind the Wolfpack.
"It is exciting," Moore said, but with that cautionary tone all coaches have, not wanting to be overly optimistic. "I feel like our kids did almost everything they could do to put us in good position in the nonconference. They took care of business for the most part."
Of course, these NC State players haven't been "our kids" to Moore and his staff all that long. The decision to fire Harper was a surprise to many, since she went 70-64 in four seasons, with one NCAA tournament appearance. In women's basketball, some coaches who do a lot less keep their jobs for a lot longer. But the NC State administration opted for a change, and Moore wanted the challenge.
Even though he'd spent 1993-95 as an assistant at NC State under the legendary Kay Yow, Moore anticipated that returning as head coach in 2013 would be a very different experience.
"The first few months when I took the job were kind of tough," Moore acknowledged. "But now getting to know the players and having a staff in place and getting grounded back here on campus in Raleigh, I feel comfortable. But you don't relax. For a coach, I hate to call it this, but we're in a grind."
Veterans embrace new system
It's different for Moore being an underdog now at NC State, as opposed to the Southern Conference favorite his Chattanooga team was for most of his 15 seasons there. NC State was picked to finish 10th in the ACC this season, and Moore seemed realistically prepared for a rough ride.
But his veteran players, in particular, have smoothed things over very well to this point. Eight of the 14 Wolfpack players are either seniors or juniors, some of the redshirt variety. Coaches who take over programs generally will admit to some worry about whether older players they inherit might be too set in their ways and/or resentful of a different regime.
That fear has not manifested itself with the Wolfpack; instead it has been the opposite.
"The seniors and juniors have played extremely well," Moore said. "They've been very open to our system and way of doing things. I couldn't be prouder of them, really."
The 6-foot-5 center Gatling is averaging 15.9 points and 6.3 rebounds, both team bests. Burke, a 6-2 forward, is at 14.3 PPG and 5.3 RPG. Fellow senior Myisha Goodwin-Coleman (9.3 PPG) and junior guards Len'Nique Brown (8.7 PPG, 4.7 APG) and Krystal Barrett (8.0 PPG) are also in the starting lineup. Freshman guard Miah Spencer is averaging 8.5 points off the bench and has made 13 of 29 3-point field goals (44.8 percent).
"In a sense, we're all freshmen with a new coach," Burke said. "But it was important for us seniors to be mentors. At first, we really didn't know what to expect or what kind of system we'd be playing in. Now, we've matured a lot, and we're understanding it well."
Moore said he has kept essentially the same philosophy that he had in Chattanooga.
"It worked out that we have the personnel here to do the things we've always done as a staff," he said. "Yes, everything was new to these players. And we didn't have veterans familiar with our system to pull the others along. But at the same time, it's kind of refreshing to be teaching the things that you do to a group that hasn't heard it before."
Burke leads the way in work ethic, Moore said. She's one of just three Californians to play women's hoops for NC State, according to the school's records. The Left Coast was never much of a recruiting ground for the Wolfpack. But Burke had her heart set on the ACC, and it has worked out beyond her dreams.
"It's actually been even better," Burke said. "Coming from California into the ACC, I wasn't expecting to play as much as I have played. Every day I'm just blessed, but I know you need to keep fighting to compete."
Moore is appreciative of this one season he gets to coach Burke.
"She deserves everything she gets; she works as hard as anybody I've ever seen," Moore said. "All summer, every time you'd walk through Reynolds, she'd be out there."
Burke said she got a good idea when Moore took over of how that could expand her role, and spent the offseason preparing for four-out/one-in offensive schemes.
"It allows me to shoot the ball a little bit more, which is what I practiced over the summer: my midrange and 3-point shots," said Burke, who has made 12 of 32 shots from behind the arc and is shooting 51 percent overall from the field.
"With his system, the '4' player has to be able to shoot and be a good passer. It allows me to use my versatility, rather than just be on the block."
Gatling anchors the inside, with backup from 6-4 redshirt senior Lakeesa Daniel. Gatling knew a little of the history of NC State women's basketball during her youth in Raleigh, but not much. She attended some games and team camps at NC State.
After her initial commitment to UNC Charlotte, Gatling didn't expect Reynolds to ever become her home. The juco detour changed that.
"I grew up at junior college; I matured a lot," Gatling said. "My freshman year, I really wasn't into school or basketball, but by my sophomore year I was."
Then she had the chance to re-evaluate her Division I goals, and NC State came into the picture for her final two college seasons. Last season, she was second in the ACC in field goal percentage (57.7 percent), and averaged 9.6 points and 6.3 rebounds.
"I was nervous at first going into it, because it was big-time basketball," Gatling said of her first season in the ACC. "Then this year, there was a coaching change. But I had to deal with that just going from junior college to here. Coach Moore is very intense, but it's been a good transition for me."
Moore thinks Gatling might be one of the top "under-the-radar" centers in the nation. Gatling's 70.1 field goal percentage -- currently best in the ACC -- would indicate as much.
"She's a big-time player; has a great presence inside, great hands, soft touch," Moore said. "She moves pretty well. I think the sky is the limit, really. She still has areas where she can get better, but I think she can play at the next level.
"She needs to learn to stay focused and never relax. She has to constantly be working to get the seal. But I'm telling you, once she gets the ball, she's pretty good."
The question now, of course, is how good NC State really is. The Wolfpack's biggest nonconference victory was Dec. 20 at home against LSU, which was ranked No. 12 at the time. That win got even more luster when LSU subsequently defeated Tennessee on the road.
"When we beat LSU, that's when we started to realize we could play with pretty much any team," Burke said. "But we're still very grounded. We know what we're going to have to face in the ACC. It's really difficult."
Next up Thursday in Chapel Hill, N.C., is NC State's biggest traditional rival: North Carolina. The No. 13 Tar Heels are a team led mostly by freshmen and a sophomore. Even with their youth, they were expected to contend in the ACC -- and nationally -- this season. The older Wolfpack didn't have any external expectations at all, really.
"We weren't picked very high in the preseason polls in the conference," Moore said. "So we have to climb over some people and put ourselves in position to be contenders."
Thus far, the Wolfpack are showing they can do that.
"We just want to prove to the rest of the country," Burke said, "that we really can play."
12dBonnie D. Ford