It’s been a rough season in Raleigh for the North Carolina State Wolfpack. Their coach, Mark Gottfried, was fired midseason, then compared himself to a dog getting run over to inspire (?) his team. The team’s best player, Dennis Smith Jr., has ducked the media repeatedly. Barring at least a few wins this week in Brooklyn, N.C. State wasn’t likely to even qualify for NIT selection, let alone grab a bid.
So Tuesday afternoon in Brooklyn, the Wolfpack played like it, losing to Clemson, 75-61. Smith didn’t score for most of the first half, sinking a lone field goal late in front of NBA front office reps like Danny Ainge of the Celtics and Sean Marks of the Nets.
Still, the Wolfpack managed to stay with Clemson, and trailed just 36-28 when they forced a miss and the rebound came to Terry Henderson, a senior guard who, presumably, knows what to do with 18 seconds left in the half. You hold for final shot. You only go to the hoop if the opportunity is too good to pass up.
Instead, Henderson ran headlong into a 1-on-4, forced the action anyway, got blocked, leading to a break the other way for Clemson, and playing 5-on-4 with Henderson not exactly hustling back into the picture, a three for Avry Holmes. What could have been a six-point halftime deficit became a 39-28 Clemson lead.
Smith finished 3-for-12 with seven points, looking every bit like a man ready to move onto the next challenge.
“I thought we kept him out of transition a good bit,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said following the game.
“He’s dynamic in the open floor. Whether it was just making shots or good shots around the rim so we didn’t have long misses that led to run-outs and open-court play for him, I just think he’s a terrific player. When he gets a full head of steam, you can’t guard him with one player. I think keeping him in the halfcourt, executing offensively with shot selection, not to take bad shots, have live-ball turnovers, kept that situation the way we wanted it.”
With Smith struggling, no one else really stepped up. Maverick Rowan and Abdul Malik-Abu each scored 14 points. But a collection of individuals managed to collect just seven assists on the afternoon, with Smith’s three dimes leading the team.
An emotional Gottfried expressed remorse at the way it all ended: “It’s sad for me. I came to NC State hoping to be here for the rest of my career.”
He walked off the floor with Smith, his arm around Smith’s waist. Asked by reporters what he said to his star player, Gottfried demurred: “I think what Dennis and I talk about are private. All the time with him, I’m really proud of him. I think he’s handled a tough situation as well as you can handle. I think they all have, no question about it. Tons of expectations put on Dennis to be savior of the program. He’s got great things that are going to happen for him in his life. He’s going to learn this year. It’s going to be a great learning opportunity for him. He’s just going to stay positive. He’ll get better and better and better, and life will move on for him.”
But his college career ended on a Tuesday afternoon in Brooklyn, and so did Gottfried’s Wolfpack tenure. It can’t be how either man pictured it when Smith committed.