In 2016, Kellie Harper did something that no Lady Bears head coach had done for 10 years — take the Lady Bears dancing.
During Kellie’s third season at Missouri State, the Lady Bears received an automatic bid to the 2016 NCAA Tournament after winning their 10th Missouri Valley Conference Championship title.
Before their 2016 campaign, Missouri State women’s basketball had not been in the tournament since 2006, where they lost to Purdue in the first round.
Three years later, Kellie has taken the Lady Bears to the big dance once again.
In Saturday’s contest, No. 11 Missouri State upset No. 6 DePaul, 89-78, giving Kellie her first NCAA Tournament win as a head coach.
The Lady Bears became the lowest seed remaining in the tournament as they advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, where they beat No. 3 Iowa State, 69-60. This is Kellie’s first Sweet 16 appearance as a head coach. The last time the Lady Bears were in the Sweet 16 was in 2001 when Jackie Stiles was in uniform.
In Kellie’s 24 years of college basketball, both as a player and coach, she has made a run in the postseason 20 times and earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament 13 times.
The former Kellie Jolly played for Pat Summitt at University of Tennessee and helped lead the Lady Volunteers to three straight NCAA Championship titles from 1995-98.
In 1997, Kellie set an NCAA championship game individual record with 11 assists. The record has since been broken.
Kellie’s senior campaign came to an end in the Elite Eight after losing to Duke but she earned honorable mention all-American honors in 1999.
Kellie spent the next two years at Auburn. In her first year as an administrative assistant, she saw a 22-9 Tigers to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Kellie moved on to assistant coach at Chattanooga where they saw a bid to the big dance all three years with Kellie on the coaching staff.
In 2004, Kellie accepted a head coaching position at Western Carolina where she took the Lady Catamounts to the first round of the NCAA tournament during her first go-round.
Over the next four years at Western Carolina, Kellie took her teams to the postseason with one more NCAA bid and two Women’s National Invitational Tournament appearances.
In 2009, North Carolina State was lucky enough to snag Kellie as head coach where, again, she took her team to the round of 64 in the NCAA tournament during her first campaign. Kellie took NC State to two more postseason trips to the second round of the WNIT.
The same year Kellie was inducted into the Lady Volunteer Hall of Fame.
Kellie took over as Missouri State’s women’s basketball head coach for the 2013-14 campaign where she recorded just her third losing season in 24 years, 14-17.
Kyle Moats, the Missouri State athletic director, remembers watching Kellie Jolly play for Tennessee when he was a graduate assistant in the athletics department at the University of Kentucky.
Moats said when he watched Kellie play in college, he never thought their paths would cross again.
“We were looking for a head coach, and I knew we had a chance to get her,” Moats said.
Moats said he felt as though Missouri State had a shot at getting Kellie because of the culture Springfield has created around women’s basketball.
“We have history, and we have traditions, which Kellie was used to at Tennessee,” Moats said. “People care about it. They show up, we have great crowds and it’s important to this university. I knew it would be important to Kellie as well.”
Moats interviewed Kellie in Kansas City, Missouri.
“I told Clif (Smart), ‘This is it. She’s it,’” Moats said.
In 2016, Kellie became one of only 11 head coaches to lead three different schools to the NCAA tournament. In the years that followed, Kellie and the Lady Bears appeared in the first and second rounds of the WNIT.
On March 17, Kellie led the Lady Bears to their 11th Missouri Valley Conference title, 15th NCAA tournament and fifth consecutive postseason trip in just six seasons. After starting the 2018-19 campaign 2-8, Kellie coached the Lady Bears to a 13-game winning streak and went 7-0 in January to set them up for postseason play.
Since the 2015-16 campaign, Kellie is 29-7 on the road during regular-season conference play.
“It’s hard to win on the road no matter what league you’re in,” Moats said. “It’s just incredible what she’s done.”
Liza Fruendt was a former player for Kellie at Missouri State and is and now a graduate assistant coach at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Freundt said she sees every angle of basketball now that she is a coach.
Fruendt said Kellie taught her not only basketball, but life lessons too.
“Kellie is always true to herself,” Fruendt said. “There aren’t a lot of ups and downs with her, which is really nice to have in a coach as a college athlete. College athletics are a crazy ride, so having a coach like Kellie made basketball so much more enjoyable.”
Over half of Kellie’s basketball career has been spent in the NCAA tournament. Her 23-year 508-251 record is impressive and shows how the type of player you recruit is crucial.
Fruendt said Kellie knows the type of culture she wants to establish and that starts with recruiting the right type of player.
“Kellie knows the brand of basketball she wants to play, and she never waivers from that,” Fruendt said. “She is grounded and disciplined, and she translates that to her coaching. She’s just remarkable. She trusts her team and staff, and the girls really buy into the culture.”