N.C. State might not leave the city of Pittsburgh.
The Wolfpack always seems to play its best basketball here and did again on Tuesday night.
N.C. State stormed out to a 28-point lead in the first half and never looked back in a 78-61 road win over Pittsburgh for its first ACC win of the season.
The way the Wolfpack (11-8, 1-5 ACC) sprinted out of the blocks at the Petersen Events Center, it looked more like the team that shocked No. 1 seed Villanova in the NCAA tournament last March, across town at the Consol Energy Center, than the one that started 0-5 in the ACC.
“We’re thinking about scheduling some more neutral-site games here,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried joked. “I don’t know why but this town has been good to us.”
N.C. State won a pair of NCAA tournament games in downtown Pittsburgh last year and its last trip to Pitt’s campus arena, behind a memorable 41-point effort by T.J. Warren, in March 2014.
Junior guard Cat Barber couldn’t quite duplicate Warren’s scoring outburst, but he led the way with 31 points, including a 14-of-14 effort from the foul line, and finished with eight assists and seven rebounds.
Unlike most of N.C. State’s ACC losses, Barber, the ACC’s leading scorer, had plenty of help, especially in a near-perfect first half.
Sophomore forward Abdul-Malik Abu had 16 points and 10 rebounds and junior forward Lennard Freeman had a game-high 14 rebounds. Freshman guard Maverick Rowan, who originally committed to Pitt and was booed heavily every time he touched the ball, added 14 points.
There wasn’t much more to N.C. State’s ACC breakthrough, after its first 0-5 start since 1997, than desperation.
“We just got tired of losing,” Freeman said.
N.C. State was able to build off of a positive effort at North Carolina last Saturday. The Wolfpack lost 67-55 but played with better urgency on defense and more balance on offense.
The one big problem in the second half against UNC was defensive rebounding.
“That was a point of emphasis the last couple of days,” Gottfried said.
N.C. State allowed Pitt to get only two offensive rebounds in the first half as it built a 44-19 lead. The Wolfpack also shot 58.1 percent and held the Panthers to 25 percent from the floor.
Sophomore Cody Martin, starting for the second straight game, was instrumental in N.C. State’s defensive renaissance. He held Pitt junior Jamel Artis to three points in the first half.
“Cody was terrific, he really set the tone on Artis,” Gottfried said.
The Panthers (15-3, 4-2), who started 4-1 in the ACC and were a game behind first-place North Carolina when the night began, shot 25 percent (7 of 28) and found itself in the biggest halftime deficit ever in a home game.
Pitt couldn’t contain N.C. State’s bigs inside or its guards on the outside. Barber scored 14 points in the first half, his pull-up jumper with 39.8 seconds left stretched N.C. State’s lead out to its biggest margin at 44-16.
Barber was worried N.C. State would have a letdown in the second half, but Pitt could only get as close as 14 points until the game was out of reach in the final minute.
“I told my guys at halftime, ‘We can’t stop here,’” Barber said.
Barber had the answer after Pitt made it 53-39 when he was fouled on a 3-point shot and made all three free throws at 10:45. BeeJay Anya had a layup after a three-point play by Michael Young cut N.C. State’s lead to 56-42.
A mini-spurt by Barber, who was coming off a season-low nine points in Saturday’s loss at UNC, sealed the game. The junior guard scored four straight points after Anya’s layup to stretch the Wolfpack’s lead back to 62-42 at 9:14.
It was the second straight game N.C. State played well in the first half but the first time the Wolfpack was able to put a complete game together.
“We wanted a win and we needed a win,” Barber said. “We played the whole 40 minutes and we got the win.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio