Jeremy Atkinson saw plenty of reason for optimism for UNC Asheville even in a loss.
Atkinson scored a career-high 28 points in the Bulldogs' 82-80 loss at No. 16 North Carolina State on Friday night, though UNC Asheville led most of the way.
The Bulldogs have now lost five straight, including the past three at the Puerto Rico Tipoff.
"We're trying to gel and get our chemistry together," Atkinson said. "We went to Puerto Rico and didn't win a game but every team, including N.C. State, will tell you that we play hard to 40 minutes. We're not a pushover team even though we're in the Big South and a mid-major. We're still a force to be reckoned with. We were beating State for 38 minutes in Raleigh, which is pretty hard."
Atkinson hit 12 of 22 shots and pulled down six rebounds in 37 minutes. The Wolfpack tried at least three defenders on him during the game, though he was quick enough to get by bigger defenders and strong enough to outmuscle smaller ones inside.
Atkinson's previous career high was 24 points in the season-opening win against Western Carolina.
For N.C. State, Richard Howell scored 23 points, including the go-ahead basket with 3:06 left. He finished with 15 rebounds and also knocked down two free throws with 5 seconds left to secure the win for the Wolfpack (4-1), who finally shook free of the Bulldogs late after trailing most of the way.
UNC Asheville (1-5) led by seven with 8½ minutes left before N.C. State finally inched ahead, pushing in front when Howell corralled a deflected pass and scored in the paint while drawing an intentional foul.
Scott Wood added 14 points, including a pair of clutch jumpers in the final 3 minutes that helped N.C. State hold on.
This looked like a game that would give N.C. State the chance to regroup after a 20-point loss to Oklahoma State in the Puerto Rico Tipoff championship game on Sunday. Instead, N.C. State's struggles continued against an aggressive and opportunistic bunch of Bulldogs who wouldn't go away.
While N.C. State shot 56 percent for the game, it committed 19 turnovers that UNC Asheville converted into 31 points.
After the Wolfpack took the 70-69 lead on Howell's basket, Wood followed with a straightaway jumper that pushed the lead to four. Two possessions later, Wood answered a 3-pointer by Trent Meyer with one of his own, losing Keith Hornsby around a screen on the right wing to make it 76-72 with 1:16 left.
UNC Asheville got as close as 80-78 on a three-point play from Hornsby with 16.5 seconds left, but Howell made it a two-possession game with his free throws and the Bulldogs managed a meaningless putback just before the buzzer to end it.
N.C. State improved to 18-0 all-time against UNC Asheville, led by former Wolfpack player Eddie Biedenbach.