Saturday, March 19, 2005

Ex-Lady Vol aims to upset UT

KNOXVILLE — Kellie Jolly didn't play at Tennessee to keep games close.

Kellie Harper doesn't coach at Western Carolina to keep games close.

Harper, who won three national championships as a Lady Vol, will be back on the floor at Thompson-Boling Arena tonight as her Lady Catamounts get ready for tomorrow's 8:30 tip-off against her alma mater.

She comes to Knoxville bearing a different name than her playing days though. Her husband, Jon Harper, is an assistant coach on her staff.

On top of Tennessee being a No. 1 seed in the tournament, Coach Pat Summitt would tie Dean Smith for most victories by a college basketball coach.

Even though Harper knows she is walking into a buzzsaw, she doesn't plan on letting her players step out of the way of mighty Tennessee.

''I know we're a long shot to win this game, but I don't have it in me to go out there and try to keep it close,'' Harper said. ''Pat taught me better than that.''

Harper's team has been through tough situations before. Western Carolina (18-13) started off its conference season with a 3-7 record, but reversed that in the second half of the Southern Conference schedule to finish .500 in the league.

The Lady Catamounts then had to win four games in four days to win the conference tournament. In the semifinals, they snuck past Davidson 59-58 and then had to survive a 97-95 double overtime thriller against Georgia Southern to win the tournament.

''They're not just coming here just to show up,'' Summitt said. ''They'll come here eager to prove that they're worthy of being here.''

At the same time, Harper — in her first year as a head coach — said she wants her players to enjoy Western Carolina's first trip to the NCAA Tournament in the 40-year history of the program.

''They need to have fun and realize that it's an honor to play in the NCAA Tournament,'' Harper said.

''So we're going to have a good time when we go over to Knoxville. But at the same time, I wouldn't be doing my job if we didn't get out there and try to win the basketball game.''

Harper has tried to deflect attention from her onto her team this week, but not many people around the Tennessee program have forgotten the career-high 20 points she put up on a bum ankle to help the Lady Vols win the 1998 national championship.

''She was in our shoes just a couple years ago,'' UT junior Shanna Zolman said. ''It speaks volumes for our program and our teams in the past, just seeing how and where past players have gone on to in building their own programs up.''

Added Summitt: ''She shows a little more emotion as a coach than she did as a player. Kellie was as competitive a player as you could ever want, but you never really saw that in her emotions.''

Win or lose, Harper said she is already starting to see the effects on her program. The team is getting national attention that it has never gotten, and the campus in Cullowhee, N.C., has quickly taken a liking to women's basketball.

''This campus is turned upside down,'' Harper said. ''There are signs everywhere. The girls get standing ovations in their classes when they walk in. Everyone is so proud of what they were able to accomplish.''

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