Just under two minutes into Tuesday’s game, North Carolina State guard Anthony “Cat” Barber knocked down a jumper that Pitt guard James Robinson could not match after missing an open shot.
What seemed like an innocuous sequence early in the game would foreshadow what was to come. NC State trumped Pitt’s inability to convert on offense, leading to a 78-61 Panthers defeat at the Petersen Events Center Tuesday night.
The Wolfpack finished the game shooting 48 percent, compared to the Panthers’ 37 percent. Fresh off a win against Boston College, Pitt’s rough performance came as a surprise to head coach Jamie Dixon.
“[Coming into the game], I really felt good about what we were doing, and certainly that came to a quick end at the start of the game,” Dixon said.
NC State executed quickly on offense and found solid shots in transition and in half court. At the 15:17 mark, Pitt called a timeout, as the Wolfpack held a 12-4 lead after making six of their first eight shots. NC State head coach Mark Gottfried pointed to his team’s quick start to spearhead its play for the rest of the game.
“I thought the biggest key was the way we started the game,” Gottfried said. “The first half, both offensively and defensively, was probably our best half of the year.”
While Pitt generally found makeable shots, it regularly missed at the rim or from mid-range. Dixon was blunt about his team’s inability to finish.
“It was jump shots,” Dixon said. “They were sagging, they were in the lane, we didn’t finish.”
The struggles only continued the rest of the half, with two threes from NC State forward Maverick Rowan and a converted layup and foul shot by Barber bringing the score to 25-6 roughly 10 minutes in.
Pitt’s offensive possessions became formulaic, as one after the next stalled out due to a missed open shot or a careless drive to the basket. Meanwhile, the Panthers’ defense found no solution to slow the Wolfpack offense. When a NC State possession failed to produce a basket, it was usually due to an offensive folly, rather than Pitt’s defensive abilities.
Pitt forward Michael Young said his team’s offensive struggles corroded its defensive play.
“We definitely let that dictate our defense,” Young said. “We came out lackadaisical and not ready to play.”
Within the last two minutes of the half, Barber went on a 7-0 run, ending with a nifty stepback jumper to give NC State a 44-16 lead.
Pitt failed to contain Barber, whose quickness repeatedly gave Pitt’s defense fits. When he wasn’t driving to the hoop with ease, he was troubling his defender with slick ball handling to set up a jump shot. Barber finished with 31 points off of 8-18 shooting, converting on all 14 attempts from the free throw line and assisting on seven buckets.
“Barber certainly controlled the game,” Dixon said. “We couldn’t keep [him] in front of us.”
At the half, the Panthers trailed 44-19, shooting a mere 25 percent from the field, compared to NC State’s 58 percent. Though Dixon said he thought his team could come back from the deficit, he knew it would take perfection to overcome a nearly insurmountable spread.
“You can’t put yourself in a situation being down 25 at the half,” Dixon said. “It really made it almost an impossibility to come back.”
About four minutes into the second half, Pitt forward Jamel Artis converted a layup while drawing a foul, knocking down the free throw as well to bring Pitt within 20 points. An Artis three from the top of the key cut the lead to 53-37 with 12:46 left in the game, as Pitt started the half on an 18-9 run.
Seconds later after a TV timeout, Sheldon Jeter tipped in a missed shot to pull Pitt closer. But its momentum ran dry when Artis fouled Barber on a missed 3-point attempt and he preceded to convert all three free throws.
The three free throws brought the deficit to 17, where it remained steady for the rest of the game. Any comeback attempts were partly thwarted by NC State’s dominance on the boards — the visitors outrebounded Pitt 46-30, with 14 coming from Lennard Freeman and 10 from Abdul-Malik Abu. Young said that the Wolfpack’s interior players know that their primary job is to rebound, which led to their success.
“They’re relentless. Their bigs don’t really look for touches that much,” Young said. “They have a relentless amount of energy when the ball does go up.”
Pitt will return to play Saturday, when it travels to Tallahassee to face off against Florida State at 4 p.m. Come game time, Artis said Pitt has to be the aggressor and not let Florida State dominate from the onset.
“It’s a sad feeling, but I think we learned our lesson tonight,” Artis said. “We’ve just gotta come out and hit [Florida State] first.”