Mark Gottfried was correct about one thing Saturday.
“I think our players have proven that we’re going to be a tough out, if we’re fortunate enough to get in,” the North Carolina State coach said.
“In” would be a reference to the NCAA tournament.
Out is where the Wolfpack will be if their narrow 69-67 loss to North Carolina in the ACC semifinals Saturday and their body of work this season won’t be quite impressive enough for the tournament selection committee.
And that blame would fall on Gottfried and his staff.
This was a winnable game for North Carolina State against the conference’s top seed and an expected No. 1 seed when the NCAA bracket is revealed Sunday. The Tar Heels were missing one of their best players, John Henson. They didn’t play particularly well or inspired, except when they had to.
Roy Williams’ neat summary: “We feel very fortunate to say the least. If you want to put lucky in there, you can say that as well.”
But State suffered too many meltdowns, and the first one came on the sideline. The Wolfpack led 46-39 before Tyler Zeller sparked a 19-3 run that put North Carolina ahead. But a key moment came late in that span with 8:35 left when C.J. Leslie, State’s leading scorer, drew his fourth foul – and Gottfried did not take him out. Just 32 seconds later, Leslie drew another foul when trying to defend Zeller inside and he was out of the game.
The look on mixture of surprise and angst on Gottfried’s face made it clear: The head coach didn’t realize his best player was that deep into foul trouble. Now, we can blame an assistant coach or whose ever job it is to chart fouls — and scream “That’s four!” — for Gottfried. But ultimately, that kind of faux pas falls on the head coach.
“That was a miscommunication by our staff,” Gottfried said later. “That’s our responsibility. The two fouls happened so fast.”
He acknowledged he would’ve taken out Leslie (who led the Wolfpack with 23 points) for at least a minute had he realized the situation, although he referenced the team’s other foul problems up front and added, “We were trying to survive with smoke and mirrors a little bit.”
They almost did, which is impressive in itself. North Carolina State may have done enough to win over the committee. Despite a four-game losing streak late in the season, it finished 22-12 overall (9-7 in the ACC’s regular season). With Leslie, Lorenzo Brown and Richard Howell, the Pack are a fun team to watch, at least when they’re not coming unglued.
Despite Leslie’s disqualification, State battled back, largely behind the scoring of Brown, the former Centennial High School star (yet another Georgia product not playing for a Georgia school). Consecutive baskets by Brown tied the score at 66-all with 1:10 left.
Then came a nuclear meltdown. With the game tied at 67-67, Brown and Alex Johnson got their signals crossed on a five-foot pass. The ball went off Brown’s fingertips out of bounds. Brown: “[Johnson] told me that the [defender] was right on my hip, but I didn’t really feel anything. He kinda paused, and I turned around to see if the guy was there. That’s when he passed the ball. It just went out of my hands.”
North Carolina took the lead on a short jumper by Kendall Marshall. State fans screamed for an offensive foul, as Marshall lowered his shoulder and drove into Johnson before the shot. The call could’ve gone either way, but officials had been calling fewer flagrant offensive fouls all game.
Gottfried on officiating: “Can’t talk about that. You get fined.”
Moments later, State’s Scott Wood threw away a pass, and that pretty much was it. Carolina escapes, going into Sunday’s championship game.
There was one upset Saturday: Florida State beat Duke. There almost were two.
If somebody could count to five, there might’ve been.
By Jeff Schultz