If the ball had bounced a little differently a few years ago, Marissa Kastanek might be a Tar Heel.
Instead, the only senior on the N.C. State women’s basketball team is preparing for her final home meeting with North Carolina on Thursday night at 7 at Reynolds Coliseum.
Once again UNC (15-1, 3-0 ACC), ranked No. 11 and on an eight-game winning streak, is favored. N.C. State (8-7, 0-3) has lost two straight, although the Wolfpack’s 67-57 defeat a week ago to now No. 4 Duke – the nation’s sole unbeaten Division I team – was the Blue Devils’ closest call so far.
“Any North Carolina school playing another North Carolina school will play hard,” Kastanek said. “Against Duke you have to be on your ‘A’ game, and we were. That game showed us our potential, what we can do.”
N.C. State split with UNC in her first two seasons before being swept last season. Kastanek was part of an upset win in Carmichael Arena as a freshman, then as a sophomore scored a career-high 30 points in a road loss to UNC before helping shock the No. 13 Tar Heels 88-72 in Reynolds.
“It’s amazing this is my last time playing Carolina here,” said Kastanek, a Nebraska native. “Being a part of the Wolfpack. you always want to beat Carolina. Just to wear the Wolfpack Red and play for this university mean a lot.”
Change of heart
A dozen years ago, her thinking was a little different.
The second of three girls with a much younger brother – she played high school basketball with older sister Allie; Alexa will play at Iowa next season and Marcus is 10 – Kastanek grew up also playing soccer, volleyball and softball. She could always run, dominating in the 400 and 800 and winning the state 800 title for Crete High as a sophomore.
But as a grade-schooler she liked soccer best, imagining herself the golden-haired second coming of UNC legend Mia Hamm.
“I wanted to play soccer at Carolina,” she said. “My closet was like baby blue everything. One Christmas, Santa brought me so many Carolina shirts and shorts and Mia Hamm stuff. I was probably the biggest Carolina fan in Nebraska until I decided to concentrate on basketball.”
That all happened in middle school. She got her first recruiting letter from Buffalo as a seventh-grader and her first scholarship offer from Drake before her ninth-grade season. Along the way the midfielder’s best soccer friends, a year ahead of her in school, went on to high school and she decided to concentrate on hoops.
Her 198 3-pointers put her No. 3 on N.C. State’s all-time list, and she is also third in career free-throw percentage at 80 percent. She has 1,404 points, needing 166 to get into N.C. State’s Top 10.
This season she averages 11.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and leads the team with 22 steals.
“Marissa has been a leader ever since she set foot on this campus, and now she has the senior status,” said coach Kellie Harper, who solidified Kastanek as her first recruit when she came from Western Carolina to replace the late Kay Yow. “When I asked her what she wanted this year, she said ‘I want my teammates to go to the NCAA tournament.’ And for her to focus on what she wanted her teammates to get, that’s a leader. To me she would be an easy leader to follow.”
After Yow’s death, when Harper was named her successor, she had to recruit Kastanek almost from scratch.
“When I got the call that Kellie was the new coach and I wasn’t going to play for the coaching staff I’d gotten to know for almost two years, it made me take a few steps back and think about ‘Is this still the place for me?’ ” Kastanek said. “But they did a great job of making me see I would fit into their program.”