Disclaimer: No actual dogs were harmed in Mark Gottfried’s pregame speech on Saturday.
N.C. State’s coach, for at least four more games, tried to pump up his players by comparing his situation to a dog caught under the tire of a car.
“You gotta choice to make right there,” Gottfried said in the locker room before the game, which ESPN showed before tip. “I can promise you, fellas, I’m going to bite that damn tire. Bite the damn tire today, fellas, you hear me? Bite the damn tire.”
In the first game since Gottfried was fired, the Wolfpack did show some fight but not enough to avoid an 81-72 loss to No. 25 Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish (21-7, 10-5 ACC) got 27 points from senior wing V.J. Beachem and made 13 3-pointers, compared to only three for N.C. State (14-14, 3-12).
It was the Wolfpack’s seventh straight ACC loss since knocking off Duke on Jan. 23 (the Blue Devils, by the way, have won seven straight since). N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow made the decision on Thursday to fire Gottfried, but the coach wanted to finish the season.
He said he didn’t want to quit on his players. The players responded on Saturday with the kind of effort that has been missing for most of the season. It was after Notre Dame got up 59-36, at the 14:18 mark in the second half, when the fight kicked in.
Too many times this season, N.C. State has rolled over after getting down double digits. It lost by 51 in Chapel Hill, 30 in Winston-Salem and 25 at Louisville. But instead of adding Notre Dame to the list of lopsided losses, something clicked in the players.
“I think we played a lot harder today compared to other games,” sophomore guard Maverick Rowan said. “I mean the team is tired of losing.”
With 15 points from Rowan, 16 from freshman guard Dennis Smith Jr. and 12 from freshman guard Markell Johnson, N.C. State cut Notre Dame’s lead to 10 points by the 7:19 mark and then seven points with 1:23 left.
“Hey, man, these guys fought today,” Gottfried said. “They showed spirit, toughness, will.”
Gottfried, to the last, remains hopeful that there’s still some magic left in the season.
“I want them to see it, if you play like that and play hard, good things are going to happen for us,” Gottfried said.
Gottfried was relaxed and loose before the game. After being booed on Wednesday night in the introductions before the North Carolina game, he was cheered.
ESPN was in the locker room for his pregame speech, too. His pregame speech was a throwback to his first season when his pep talks included: “There’s a plane waiting to take you to St. Louis” and “They gotta guard us, too, pal!”
Gottfried made sure to complete the dog-tire analogy after the game.
“I told them, me personally I’m going to bite that damn tire myself,” Gottfried said in his postgame news conference. “I’m going to find a way to get out from underneath that thing. And they did too today. There was no doubt about it. They responded.”
Joe Giglio: 919-829-89389, @jwgiglio