NC State rises higher and higher
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Before the season coach Mark Gottfried talked about taking North Carolina State to new heights. He wasn't referring to anything as lofty as a Sweet 16 berth.
Let's be realistic: the Wolfpack hadn't even been to the tournament in six years.
The heights Gottfried aspired to were in an airplane. NC State's new coach planned to parachute jump onto the field at a home football game to get some attention for Wolfpack basketball. Not exactly something his neighbors Mike Krzyzewski or Roy Williams would have to resort to.
That stunt was aborted by weather. But on Sunday the Wolfpack took flight and gained attention the old-fashioned way: by upsetting No. 3 seed Georgetown and earning a berth in the St. Louis regional.
"John Wooden once told me, 'Coach, don't give them too much too fast, they might start expecting that every year,'" said one-time UCLA assistant Gottfried. "Well, we failed in that category already."
When the buzzer sounded securing the 66-63 upset, the Wolfpack players rushed to mid-court in celebration. DeShawn Painter lifted Lorenzo Brown -- whose three free throws in the final 10 seconds made the difference -- high in the air. Alex Johnson popped his jersey out to the team's fans and yelled, "We're back." Some of the red-attired Wolfpack fans had tears streaming down their cheeks.
It's been 29 years since Jim Valvano ran wild on the court in Albuquerque, seven years since NC State advanced to a regional.
When Gottfried was hired last April, it created a yawn. Mediocre program meet mediocre coach. Though Gottfried took Alabama to the tournament five straight years, his decade in Tuscaloosa was considered unremarkable. In the middle of the 2008-09 season, Gottfried resigned under pressure. He spent two years working as an analyst at ESPN before he was hired by NC State -- an ACC bottom-feeder that had already been passed over by other coaching candidates.
Not surprisingly, the new coach was met with some skepticism.
"The first time I talked to him I told if he didn't want to win right away I didn't want to stay," said C.J. Williams, the Wolfpack's lone senior. "I would've left to go somewhere where I can win right away."
Williams wasn't the only one.
"One of the first things I said to Coach Gottfried when I met him was, 'I don't want this to be a rebuilding year,'" Scott Wood said. "I don't want to just play to get better. I think we've got talent and the pieces that we could be a dominant team."
Gottfried had his work cut out for him.
"Any time you walk into a new situation there's always uncertainty," Gottfried said. "If I'm a player, I'm thinking, 'How does my game fit into your style, do I fit, do you still want me, how is this going to work out for me here? More than anything, it was just getting to know our guys and them getting to know us and building a relationship there where there's some trust."
Gottfried made headway with a good recruiting class for next year. But for much of the season, this version of NC State team looked like its predecessors. The Wolfpack lost 12 games, including to every ranked opponent it played.
Part of that was intentional: Gottfried beefed up the schedule, making it the 26th in the country in strength of schedule.
"I think playing one of the toughest schedules in the country helped us lot," Williams said.
But a four-loss tailspin in February -- including a loss to Clemson -- almost derailed the season.
"At that point it was our backs are now completely against the wall," Gottfried said. "There is no more room for error. The window is closing on us and we need to respond. To their credit, they did."
They responded with two wins at the ACC Tournament, before losing by two points to North Carolina in the semifinal -- enough to get a tournament invitation.
They responded again on Sunday. Georgetown center Henry Sims was in early foul trouble, spent almost the entire first half on the bench, and was ineffective before fouling out. Though NC State only shot 37 percent for the game, the Wolfpack outrebounded the Hoyas 41-33, with 17 offensive boards and 15 second chance points.
Williams sparked a first-half comeback for NC State, who trailed by 10 with 5:17 to play. When Williams tipped in a rebound off a missed three throw, Georgetown's lead was down to six. Two minutes later, his three-pointer gave the Wolfpack its first lead -- it never trailed again. Williams finished the game with 14 points.
Wood also added 14 points. He hit four-three pointers: all 10 times he's done that this season, the Wolfpack has won.
"There was no doubt in our mind we would take this game," said C.J. Leslie, who also scored 14 points. "I knew we were going to take this game."
Spoken like a player with championship banners hanging in his home gym, no matter how ancient they are.
And now the Wolfpack heads to St. Louis -- without a parachute.