N.C. State had lost three straight ACC games. Pittsburgh had lost its last six.
Something had to give Saturday at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center. One team was going to leave the court smiling and the other grim and still looking for answers.
This day, the team smiling was the the Wolfpack, which outlasted the Panthers 79-76 in a tight, hard-fought game.
The Pack’s C.J. Bryce, who had 21 points, converted a one-and-one at the line with 9.9 seconds left to give N.C. State a 78-75 lead. With 5.5 seconds showing, he hit the first of two free throws but missed the second, but Pitt’s Sidy N’Dir was well off the mark with a long, hurried 3-point shot and the Pack (17-7, 5-6 ACC) had survived.
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N.C. State finished with a season-high 14 3-pointers, going 14-for-27 from the arc, as Braxton Beverly drained five of nine and Bryce four of five.
“It was a good win for us,” said Beverly, who had 17 points. “Every team in the ACC is capable and they’re very good at home. They play well here, have a good crowd.
“We were just out there today playing our game. We were moving the ball, playing off each other, looking for the best look every time down the court.”
A three-point jumper by Markell Johnson, who had 10 points and 8 assists, with 3:22 left in regulation had given the Pack a 75-72 lead. It was Johnson who took the nasty fall when the two teams faced off Jan. 12 in Raleigh, an injury that kept Johnson out of games.
The Wolfpack’s Torin Dorn, who had a miserable game at the foul line, hit one of two with 1:29 left for a 76-73 lead. Johnson then came up with a steal, only to miss the fast-break layup that would have pushed the lead to five.
After a flurry under the Pitt basket, Panthers guard Xavier Johnson was fouled. The freshman, who had 17 points, hit both free throws with 16.5 seconds showing, setting up the tense finish.
“Their record doesn’t show how good they are,” NCSU coach Kevin Keatts said of the Panthers. “They play hard and it reminds me a lot of my team in year one. They put a lot of pressure on the defense. It’s a good Pitt team here at home.”
The Panthers (12-12, 2-9) were coming off an overtime loss at Wake Forest and playing without injured Malik Ellison. A few players, Pitt coach Jeff Capel said, also had been sick this week.
“Tough loss. A very, very tough loss,” Capel said. “Congrats to N.C. State. They made some big shots down the stretch. I’m proud of my team. We’re on the ropes a little bit right now but we have to fight our way out of it.”
On the ropes? The Pack was just a week removed from an embarrassing 47-24 loss at home to Virginia Tech. A few days later, they took a 113-96 beating at North Carolina.
“That was a tough loss for us but I think the guys did a great job coming in and having that out of our minds and getting a great win,” Bryce said.
Three-pointers by Dorn and Beverly, and an off-balance jumper by Bryce in the first 90 seconds of the second half pushed the Pack ahead 49-40 and had Capel ordering up a quick timeout. But the Wolfpack continued to get good looks against the Pitt zone, with Beverly and Bryce draining 3s for a 57-43 cushion with 15:45 left in regulation.
But Pitt’s Jared Wilson-Frame, one of the ACC’s deadliest 3-point shooters, went on a tear. Three 3s from the senior, and another by Terrell Brown, spurred an 18-2 run that left the Panthers (12-12, 2-9) ahead 61-59.
Dorn and Bryce answered with three-pointers, Dorn a jumper and a 3 by Beverly for a 70-66 lead but the Panthers wouldn’t yield, continuing to attack the basket and forcing a 72-72 tie on a drive by Wilson-Frame with 3:53 left.
Had Beverly not beaten the buzzer with his winning 3-pointer against Clemson, the Pack could have lost its last five before Saturday. It has been a tough stretch -- at Louisville, Clemson, Virginia, Virginia Tech, UNC -- and the Wolfpack was feeling the strain.
“Once the game is over I try to get these guys to focus on the next game,” Keatts said. “I thought we were great today. I thought we were focused, we were sharp.”
In its first game against Pitt, on Jan. 12 at PNC Arena, the Pack won 86-80 despite losing Johnson to the scary injury -- the point guard crashing to the court after attempting to block a shot -- and center Wyatt Walker being ejected.
DJ Funderburk was big for the Pack that day. Coming off the bench, he had 18 points, nine rebounds and four blocks, all needed to secure the victory.
Walker missed much of the first half Saturday after picking up two quick fouls. But Funderburk again did his part, scoring 10 of his 12 points in the half, battling for five rebounds and finishing the half off with a dunk.
The two teams tested each other defensively. The Pack went with fullcourt pressure much of the first half, while the Panthers used a mix of man defense and a mostly zone, extending its pressure to midcourt at times in the first half.
“I think we matched their intensity,” Beverly said. “This should give us a lot of confidence. Coming off those last three, we were ready to get one. This gets us back going.”