As the seconds melted off the clock Tuesday during N.C. State’s first win at North Carolina since 2003, Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried clutched sophomore Cat Barber.
Barber led the Wolfpack to a 58-46 win with 15 points and a sterling defensive effort on UNC’s Marcus Paige.
The coach put his right arm around Barber’s head and spoke clearly into his ear: “I love you, boy!”
“He just kept saying, ‘I love you,’” Barber recalled after the game.
For Barber, it was a moment, as unpredictable as it was surreal, that measured his growth during the past 12 months.
It would be easy to bookmark Barber’s college career with his two divergent performances in Chapel Hill, but that would gloss over everything that has happened to him in the past six weeks.
Since Jan. 15, Barber has become a father, lost one of his best friends and lost his way on the court only to emerge as one of the most dynamic players in the ACC.
“It’s fun to watch a guy like that take big steps and get better,” Gottfried said.
‘Cut it loose’
Barber traces his improvement to a moment before the game at Georgia Tech on Jan. 31. During warmups, Gottfried pulled Barber aside.
“He just told me, ‘Be you, be Cat, do what Cat (does) best,’” Barber said.
The way Gottfried remembers it, he told Barber to “cut it loose.”
For some reason, Gottfried’s message “just clicked in my head,” Barber said.
Barber scored 23 points during an 81-80 overtime win. He had seven assists, to one turnover, and made four 3-pointers.
Blessed with raw speed and quickness, hence the nickname “Cat” from his sister, Barber hasn’t always been able to harness his natural talent. But his recent resurgence has coincided with strong decision-making and restored confidence.
Soon after the Georgia Tech breakout, came a 21-point performance during a 74-65 win at Louisville, which had Cardinals coach Rick Pitino gushing.
UNC coach Roy Williams had similar praise after Barber controlled the ball and pace of the game while helping hold Paige to seven points.
Before the outburst at Georgia Tech, Barber had only made five 3s this season. But Barber – given the name Anthony by his mother – had confidence in his shot. He put in extra hours of work, before and after practice.
“Cat has worked hard on his shot,” assistant coach Rob Moxley said. “He has tasted some success and he is hungrier than he has even been.”
The extra practice is evident in the numbers. Over the past six games, Barber has averaged 18 points per game, shot 47.8 percent from 3-point range, picked up 25 assists and turned the ball over eight times.
In his first 21 games, Barber averaged 10 points, shot 25 percent from 3 and had 74 assists with 43 turnovers.
The skill set is the same, senior guard Desmond Lee said, but there’s a difference in Barber’s mentality.
“He’s just being free,” said Lee, Barber’s best friend on the team. “You can tell the difference when he’s out there and just playing. Before, there was a lot on his mind and he couldn’t really focus.”
Life changing events
The last six weeks have been an emotional whirlwind for Barber. His daughter, Cadence Aniyah, was born Jan. 15. Barber was proud but didn’t have much time to enjoy the life milestone.
A day later, Jamar Thomas – one of his best friends, “like a brother,” Barber said – was shot and killed outside of a bar in Hampton, Va.
Barber grew up in Newport News, Va., colloquially known as “Bad News” for a reason. Drugs and violence are the cornerstones of a region known as much for producing great athletes in football and basketball as the hard street life.
While Barber, a McDonald’s All-American at Hampton High, used basketball to get out, Thomas went down the “wrong path,” Barber said.
“Once I knew where he was going, I knew he would be either locked up or the other,” Barber said recently about Thomas’ death.
“It did help me learn that life is too short.”
Barber was with the team at Florida State when he got the news about Thomas, who was 20. He told Gottfried he would be more harm to the team than good and took himself out of the lineup.
N.C. State won 72-63. Gottfried put him back in the starting lineup at Miami on Jan. 22, but he was still mentally out of it. He had five turnovers during a 65-60 loss.
There was also the moment near the end of the game when a Miami fan sitting courtside pushed Barber. Barber walked away from the potentially volatile situation, an example of his maturity.
He still wasn’t in the right place mentally for basketball, though. He came off the bench the next two games, barely scratching the box score in home losses to Notre Dame and Clemson.
Then came the turnaround at Georgia Tech, which was Barber flipping a switch rather than over-analyzing what was going on in his life.
“I’m not a person to dwell on stuff,” Barber said. “Stuff is going to happen, you are going to have ups and downs. I never let anything get to me. I just put everything behind me and try to go forward.”
Barber has moved on and brought the Wolfpack with him. His dynamic play has keyed a three-game winning streak which has catapulted the Wolfpack from outside the NCAA tournament bubble to securely in the 68-team mix.
There is a certain poetry to Barber having the game he did and the moment he did with Gottfried in Chapel Hill.
As a freshman, it was Feb. 1, 2014, after an 84-70 loss to the Tar Heels at the Smith Center, that Barber lost his starting job.
He took 11 shots in the first half, making only three, while UNC built an insurmountable 40-23 lead. Gottfried had to talk to with Barber after that game and asked him to do less.
Juxtaposed with Gottfried’s recent pep talk, asking Barber to do more, it’s easy to see how Barber’s world has come full circle.
“I’m proud of him,” Gottfried said. “He has a great future in front of him.”
N.C. State at Boston College
When/where: noon, Conte Forum, Chestnut Hill, Mass.
TV/Radio: Fox Sports South, 101.5-WRAL
Projected starting lineups
N.C. State (17-11, 8-7 ACC)
G Cat Barber 11.8 ppg, 3.7 apg
G Trevor Lacey 16.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg
G Ralston Turner 12.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg
F Lennard Freeman 3.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg
F Abdul-Malik Abu 5.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg
Boston College (9-18, 1-14 ACC)
G Olivier Hanlan 19.4 ppg, 4.2 apg
G Dimitri Batten 6.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg
G Patrick Heckmann 7.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg
F Aaron Brown 15.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg
F Dennis Clifford 7.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg
The last-place Eagles have gotten at least 30 points from junior guard Olivier Hanlan four times in the past six games, including 39 against Pittsburgh on Tuesday, but they have lost all six of those games. N.C. State will likely focus in on Hanlan defensively and make someone else in the lineup beat them. Joe Giglio