N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried’s message to his players Wednesday, after a 68-57 loss to Clemson, probably was succinct.
In short, grow up, play harder and be smarter.
There is no letup in the ACC. Just when a team starts to believe the toughest part of its schedule might be behind it, another team rears up and smacks them.
So it was with Clemson, which left the Wolfpack red-faced and nearly bewildered Wednesday in building a 20-point halftime lead. The Wolfpack played with more fire – and an effective press – in the second half but had fallen too far behind to avoid a third straight ACC defeat that could damage its NCAA tournament chances.
“We learned a hard lesson,” Gottfried said. “Hopefully our guys understand it. They’re hurting. We’ve got to get regrouped. Nobody, nobody outside of our locker room … is going to feel sorry for us. I tell them that all the time.
“This is a man’s league. For college athletics, this is a grown man’s league. And you better bring your ‘A’ game every night.”
The Wolfpack (13-9, 4-5 ACC), did that against Duke. It did it, for the most part, in losing at Virginia and played at a high level for stretches of its losses to North Carolina and Notre Dame.
But a second-half lapse was costly against Miami. The first-half humiliation by Clemson, which had a 25-2 run in taking a 27-8 lead, was even worse, coming at home against a Tigers team that lost by 20-plus points to North Carolina and Virginia and needed a last-second putback to beat Wake Forest.
It was the kind of loss that can wreck a team’s RPI, and the Wolfpack has dropped from 47th to 56th in the NCAA RPI.
The scene at PNC Arena was surreal. The Tigers, one of the ACC’s worst-shooting teams, were making everything. As the Tigers made shots, the Wolfpack became unraveled. Clemson’s lead grew and the Tigers topped out at 36-13 with two minutes remaining in the half.
“They came out firing and they didn’t back down,” N.C. State freshman Abdul-Malik Abu said. “We’re weren’t at a level we need to be and they were making shots.”
The Wolfpack’s two best players, Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner, appeared lost. The freshmen were rattled. Nothing was going right for N.C. State, which shot 23 percent from the field in the half.
“We’re not going to make every shot but we have to make it harder on them to get points,” Lacey said.
The Wolfpack, to its credit, was a different team in the second half. N.C. State rallied from a 15-point halftime deficit to beat Louisiana Tech this season and appeared poised to do it again, closing the gap to 47-44.
But the Tigers slowed things down, steadied, spread out N.C. State’s defense again and started to extend the lead.
Gottfried said adjustments were made at halftime and the full-court pressure forced some turnovers, but he also said he challenged his players.
“We have to come out with a level of intensity like we did in the second half and have the will to win,” said Abu, who finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds. “If we do that I think we’re one of the best teams in the country. But with a lack of intensity we’re just as bad as any team. It takes the right energy level and effort.”
After a loss to Clemson, the Wolfpack’s next two games don’t look as inviting as they once did – at Georgia Tech on Saturday, then at Wake Forest on Tuesday.
The Yellow Jackets went to Miami on Wednesday and ripped the Hurricanes 70-50. The Wolfpack topped Wake Forest 78-65 in December in its ACC opener, but the Deacons are better at home.
And no one can predict how this Wolfpack team will play from game to game. But N.C. State has to start winning if it’s to reach the NCAA tournament a fourth consecutive year.
“We rely on a lot of young guys and they’re learning. And they’re coming,” Gottfried said. “But what they have to learn is every night and within every (game) what it takes to win at this level. To be a champion, to be an NCAA tournament team, to win at this level – we’re learning that.”