Even as the losses mounted during a brutal opening stretch to start conference, N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried kept telling his players the Wolfpack were a good team regardless of what the scoreboard said.
For once, Gottfried and the scoreboard found a way to agree.
Anthony Barber bounced back from his worst game of the season to score 31 points and N.C. State stunned Pittsburgh 78-61 on Tuesday night.
"Our guys have been battling but we do need some confidence," Gottfried said. "Winning changes the way you feel about yourself."
Barber, held to nine points in a loss to North Carolina last Saturday, made 8 of 18 shots and all 14 of his free throws while adding seven rebounds and eight assists. Abdul Malik-Abu had 16 points and 10 rebounds for the Wolfpack (11-8, 1-5 ACC), who ended a five-game losing streak by building a 28-point first half lead and withstanding a push by the Panthers.
"I think in the beginning of the game we were just locked in and it carried us," Barber said.
Gottfried repeatedly stressed all was not lost even as N.C. State opened ACC play with five straight defeats for the first time since 1997. The Wolfpack had been close all month, every setback coming by 12 or less. On the road in a place typically not hospitable to visitors, N.C. State simply put it on the Panthers.
Jamel Artis led Pitt (15-3, 4-2) with 16 points and Michael Young added 14 but Pitt was never really in it. The Panthers fell behind by 10 in the first eight minutes and never got closer the rest of the way.
"They came out ready," Young said. "They was 0-4, 0-5 and we came out on the opposite end of that. We came out lackadaisical and not ready to play."
Something painfully obvious to Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon.
"This can't happen and we haven't had something to this degree," Dixon said. "We got what we deserved by our performance."
N.C. State had little trouble getting whatever it wanted early against the Panthers, who have molded themselves into an efficient offensive machine since making the switch from the Big East to the ACC three years ago. Pitt came in third in the conference in scoring and fourth in shooting and ripped through Boston College in the second half of an 84-61 victory last Saturday.
It all disappeared under a steady stream of turnovers and missed shots during a nightmarish 20 minutes.
The Panthers struggled to stay in front of Barber — who lit Pitt up for 34 points in the ACC tournament last spring — and the league's leading scorer had plenty of help. Freshman Maverick Rowan, a former Pitt commit who opted to sign with the Wolfpack instead, hit three 3-pointers during an onslaught that was only stopped by the halftime buzzer.
N.C. State's 44-19 advantage at the break was the largest ever by a Pitt opponent at home during Dixon's 13-year tenure.
"I thought it was our best half of the year on both ends of the floor," Gottfried said.
Pitt drew within 56-42 on a traditional three-point play by Young with 10:20 to go but the Wolfpack responded with a layup by BeeJay Anya and consecutive baskets by Barber to push it back to 20 and drain whatever energy remained out of Pitt's normally raucous student section.
HAPPY HOMECOMING: Rowan, who grew up in Western Pennsylvania, pledged to join the Panthers before moving to Florida late in his high school career and decided to join the Wolfpack. It made him a natural target for the "Oakland Zoo," which passed out a hype sheet pregame with suggestions on how to rattle Rowan. He responded with 14 points on 4 of 6 3-pointers, including one in the final seconds that sent the N.C. State bench and a small mob of family and friends into a frenzy.
"I grabbed him and said, fans are going to talk," Barber said. "I told him to leave it alone ... they going to give you hell. I told him to stick with it and he came out and made shots."
NC State: The Wolfpack outrebounded Pitt 46-30 and outscored the Panthers in the paint 34-24. ... N.C. State led for the final 38 minutes despite 19 turnovers, including eight from Barber.
Pitt: The Panthers, who began the night as the best free throw shooting team in the country (78 percent) made 12 of 17 (71 percent) at the line. ... Pitt made just 5 of 17 3-point attempts (29 percent).
NC State: hosts Duke on Saturday.
Pitt: at Florida State on Saturday.