NEW YORK — That March magic that N.C. State has seized many times over the years was nowhere to be found in Brooklyn on Tuesday. Nor was the needed energy, as the final minutes ticked off on a season the Wolfpack would prefer to forget.
Instead of the intensity that may have extended a frustrating season, there were a lot of the same problems the Wolfpack dealt with for months. There was a casual interest in defense, little movement on offense from the post players and very little care of the basketball.
The surprising part was the absence of Dennis Smith Jr.’s offense in no doubt his final college game. He finished with a season-low seven points and was left to ponder what happened to a season that began with such high expectations.
“I had high hopes coming into the year,” Smith said after a season-ending 75–61 loss to Clemson in the first round of the ACC Tournament. It was the Pack’s third straight loss and 10th in the last 11 games. “Everybody had high hopes. The fans believed in us and we did, and we didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”
While most observers probably expected the quick exit that the Wolfpack endured, that wasn’t Smith’s mindset coming into the tournament.
“I believed that we would be playing Saturday,” Smith said of the tournament championship game. “It’s unfortunate that we lost tonight. But, I mean, it’s bigger than basketball. We built relationships that will last a lifetime so there’s a positive about everything.”
That bond with his teammates stuck out most for Smith as he reflected on his most enduring memory of the season. It’s telling that he didn’t include much that happened on the court.
“I wouldn’t say it was a game, I wouldn’t say it was anything I did. I’d just say it’s my teammates. Everybody was really cool. They embraced me,” he said after the conclusion of a 15–17 season.
That was one of the few positives in a season where so many things went wrong that it claimed Coach Mark Gottfried’s job. After the game, Gottfried grabbed Smith by the waist and had some encouraging words for him.
“He was just saying ‘keep my head up. We lost the game. But, in a sense, you never want to be defeated so. We have things ahead of us, everybody does so keep your head up,’ ” Smith said. “He was just saying to keep my head up, stay positive and never be defeated.”
As both exit the program, Smith said he had no regrets.
“I’m thankful that he believed in me and I believed in him as well. I’m glad I got to play for him,” Smith said.
Smith recognized the main on-court issue that was obvious to many. So much so that he said it four times.
“What happened during the Duke game is just defense, defense, defense, defense,” Smith said, pointing to the one game that the Wolfpack defended well, and the high point of the season. “We just gave up a lot of easy points, man. Too many open shots, open drives, all that stuff. We never figured that out and you see how the season came out. We struggled all due to, I believe, our defense.”
On Tuesday, that was coupled with Smith’s inability to get much of anything going on offense and failing to make a 3-pointer for only the ninth time this season.
“They had a really good scheme on how to guard me,” he said. “They double-teamed every ball screen and just did a great job. I missed a lot of easy shots and that was about it. They did a really good job. I didn’t provide the offense I was supposed to and that hurt us. It was a lot of little things that added up.”
Clemson coach Brad Brownell succeeded in forcing Smith to score in State’s half-court offense, which he struggled to do.
“I thought we kept him out of transition a good bit,” Brownell said. “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.”
In addition to not providing the points, Smith also didn’t give them the needed playmaking as he finished with three assists and four turnovers, the fourth time in the last five games he’s been on the wrong side of that ratio.
It started out with promise when the Wolfpack scored the game’s first five points in the opening minute. But by the time State scored another field goal more than nine minutes later, it never could recover. The defense wasn’t there and neither was a fluid offense.
“We were just missing shots. We had a lot of good looks and we just missed them,” Smith said. “I think we brought some good energy. What it all boiled down to was just they kept us off the boards.”
Although he sounded like a player who was surprised to be done after likely his only ACC Tournament game, he also knew the frustrating end was coming soon, if not Tuesday.
“On the walk here I internalized it. This isn’t the way we wanted to end it, but you just have to deal with it,” said Smith, who got plenty of hard lessons during the rough season. “Learning to persevere. Things are going to happen. I dealt with a lot of adversity. This is new, a losing season. But I learned how to deal with it.”
You might not think the season was that fun for Smith, but consider that he missed his entire senior high school season at Trinity Christian with a torn ACL.
“Basketball will always be fun for me,” Smith said. “I missed a whole year last year, so I just thank God for the opportunity and the health.”
Although everybody expects his next stop to be the NBA draft, he suggested that he hasn’t made that decision yet.
“I’m not sure right now,” Smith said. “I just want to finish all my school work and finish the semester strong. I look forward to making a decision after that.”
He and the Wolfpack fans will be shaking their heads for a while wondering what might have been with such a talented guard at the controls. And he had them for probably the last time Tuesday.