Tough things happen in life. Let Mark Gottfried be the first one to tell you.
All eyes were on the sixth year head coach as he walked into PNC Arena on Saturday. In a half full arena, people stood and clapped with five minutes until tipoff, which was contrary to the audible disapproval as he was announced before the game against UNC just several days before.
On Thursday afternoon, NC State gave the official word that it had decided to part ways with its head coach. With that being said, Gottfried chose to finish out the season with his squad.
Before the game against Notre Dame, Gottfried told his team to bite the tire. And that’s exactly what his team did, rallying behind their leader to go hand in hand with a Notre Dame team that has been in and out of the Top 25 rankings throughout the entire season.
“I told them, me personally, I’m going to bite that damn tire and find a way to get out from underneath that thing,” Gottfried said. “And they did too today. There was no doubt about it.”
In a season that has been full of highs and lows, there has to be some type of credit due to the way that a team responds to adversity. At one point during the game, the Pack was down 23 points to Notre Dame. Sharp shooting and certain intensity on defense made all the difference to bring the Wolfpack back within seven points. There’s no evidence of the same heart in looking at other games this season when the team was down by 20 or more late in the game.
When asked about the past several days, Maverick Rowan used the word difficult to describe the atmosphere in the locker room.
“You never want to hear that your coach has been let go, especially during the season,” Rowan said. “We’re disappointed but we’re trying to send him out on a high note and keep fighting for him.”
All season long, Gottfried has emphasized the need to play better defense. During the second half, the Pack was able to hold off the Irish in order to pull together a late surge, outshooting Notre Dame 64 percent to their 42 percent.
“As a team, we just have to keep fighting one possession at a time,” Rowan said. “We’re not going to get the comeback all in one possession. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough tonight but we kept playing hard and the next couple of games gotta keep fighting through and play hard as a team.”
It was the Irish’s 3-point shooting that kept them uncatchable down the stretch, making almost half of their shots from behind the arc.
Nevertheless, there was Gottfried standing on the sideline “coaching his tail off” as freshman Markell Johnson described it.
Working alongside Dennis Smith Jr., Johnson finished the game with 12 points and five assists and was able to elude Notre Dame players with several tricky moves underneath the basket that included a couple of nifty reverse layups.
“Coach Gottfried told us not to quit, and we didn’t quit,” Johnson said. “We just came out with a different mindset that we can win a game.”
Gottfried saw the fight that he has been searching for against Notre Dame and said that he felt like the team got some of its heart back, despite a tough couple of days.
“It’s hard, to be honest,” Gottfried said. “It’s not an easy thing. It’s difficult. My job now is to still lead our team. And even with players. Tough things happen in life. That’s what life is. It’s hard. Things happen. And you know I need to be an example in how I respond to tough things happening and my whole focus that day and today has been the guys on the team. Our players. That’s all this is about. I want them guys to have success. That’s all I want for them.”
It could be easy for a coach who has been let go to throw in the towel and walk away. Instead, Gottfried believes he can still help his guys out somehow in looking ahead to Brooklyn.
He said, “I saw a team in that locker room that can do some damage in Brooklyn in the tournament if we keep our spirit alive.”
Buying into their coach’s belief, the team hasn’t given up before heading to the ACC Tournament.
“He’s shown a lot of commitment toward us and now we’re trying to keep practicing hard and keep playing hard and see if we can go to Brooklyn and win a couple games and see what happens,” Rowan said.
Life is far from being all about basketball, and Gottfried knows that. He’s taken his teams to four NCAA tournaments, with two of those advancing to the Sweet 16. Through all of that, he’s had the task of guiding his players into becoming respectable young men and can only hope for a little bit more success on the way out.
“Right now, I want to see if I can help these guys somehow,” Gottfried said. “Just a little bit more to get over the hump.”
With two more regular season games before heading to New York, Gottfried is taking things one day at a time. After all, all he hopes to be is proud. Proud of his team. Proud of his player’s character. Proud of their fight. And proud of the memories.