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Q&A with Kennesaw State coach Nitra Perry about upset of Northern Kentucky

Kennesaw State upset Northern Kentucky, one of the top teams in the A-Sun Conference, by an impressive 53-39 margin on Saturday. Even more impressive: they held NKU to just six points in the first half. Swish Appeal caught up with second-year coach Nitra Perry about the win, the process of changing the culture, and conference scoring leader Kristina Wells.

Photo courtesy of Kennesaw State Athletics.

Swish Appeal: How did it feel to upset Northern Kentucky, one of the top teams in the A-Sun conference this year, this past Saturday?

Nita Perry: "I was very proud of our kids, it was very gratifying for me because that’s something that me and my staff emphasizes, ‘Defense wins championships.’ I think, that game (solidifies) that meaning that it really does. I just want them to be able to hold on to that as we go to the rest of conference that if we commit to playing defense what the results would be."

SA: Talk about the defensive performance, especially in the first half, as you held NKU to six total points?

NP: "I think this was the best defensive effort we’ve had since I’ve been here – including last season. I really just felt like they committed to the scouting report, they were very alert. Our game plan basically was to change the defenses every couple of possessions, [just to make them uncomfortable]. Northern Kentucky is very methodical and it doesn’t take them long to figure out what you’re running. So we didn’t want to go more than two or three possessions in the same defense.

"That took a lot of focus from our players -- that’s something we’ve kind of been talking about in practice. They were hungry for a win, and we felt that we owed (NKU). When we went up there, they beat us by 28 and at halftime it was only a five point ball game. It left a really bad taste in our mouth, and I felt like our players took that personally which is what I wanted."

SA: You’ve been working on changing the mindset since you’ve arrived as coach, what do you want your players to take away from such a good win like this one?

NP: "Really, it’s about a belief and confidence that we can compete with anybody in the conference when we go out and play 40 minutes of basketball. And then understanding that it’s not about playing perfect, because we’ve certainly have our moments [of imperfection], but it’s about the effort for 40 minutes. That’s something that we’ve been talking about since day one, being a defensive team where a team comes in and says, ‘Hey, Kennesaw State is going lay it all on the line.’

"It was a special moment for us -- for our kids knowing that they can [beat one of the top teams in the conference]. Because it really came down to believing that they could. We had games that they thought they could compete for 20 minutes, you had a Florida Gulf Coast on the ropes for 30 minutes, but then we don’t finish [the last] 10 minutes. I think for us, ‘OK, Northern Kentucky beat Florida Gulf Coast by 20 points, not to say that we can go in there and beat FGCU by 20, but that we certainly can beat them. You need to feel that you can beat teams like FGCU. To be the best, you have to beat the best."

SA: Elaborate on just how special of a player is Kristina Wells (who leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and field goal percentage)?

NP: "She has been a joy to coach. She has this will and fire to win is unbelievable -- and is unmatched by I think anybody in the conference. I was just speaking with someone the other day that said, "I can’t believe she hasn’t won A-Sun Player of the Week (sooner) being that she’s the A-Sun’s first ever player to get a triple-double. If you haven’t seen her in person, you can’t appreciate how good she is; she’s not just putting out points and getting rebounds, she’s also playing point guard which isn't her natural position.

"And then she’s guarding the best player on the court, I’m not (just) talking about the best guard, she wants to guard the best post player – the best player on the court, actually. Our team really feeds off of her energy; I think it’s given her confidence to know that she can be a leader. Early on in the season, she was a junior, but a young junior. Nobody really asked her to do what I’m asking her to do, and she has not let us down at all. And I’m just extremely proud of her, and I hope her effort will not go unnoticed."