Out of Ohio, on to Orlando
Given a second chance, T.J. Warren put on a show in the NCAA tournament.
The hard-to-guard sophomore forward scored 16 of his 25 points in the second half on Tuesday night, showing why he was the ACC's player of the year, and North Carolina State led most of the way in a 74-59 victory over Xavier in the NCAA tournament's First Four.
N.C. State (22-12) didn't have much time to celebrate. The 12th-seeded Wolfpack headed to Orlando, Fla., for a game on Thursday against St. Louis in the Midwest Regional.
Warren had the most to do with it. He made up for a freshman tournament flop on the same floor a year earlier and prevented Xavier (21-14) from getting any traction in the second half.
"He's just a great player," coach Mark Gottfried said. "It's hard to keep him down for a whole 40 minutes."
Center Matt Stainbrook led Xavier with 19 points and nine rebounds despite an injured left knee. Leading scorer Semaj Christon was limited to 14 points, and Xavier made only 2 of 14 shots from beyond the arc.
Xavier was playing in a familiar arena less than an hour from campus. Familiar, but not entirely friendly. Fans of the Dayton Flyers — a long-time rival — booed loudly as they took the court, making for a mixed welcome with a lot of Musketeer fans in the stands as well.
Warren made it all a moot point, helping N.C. State take all the drama out of the game over the final 11 minutes. Ralston Turner added 17 points.
The Wolfpack went six years between NCAA appearances before Gottfried got them there three years in a row. This was his youngest and least-experienced team: Only two players with tournament experience. They got one of the final at-large bids with a strong closing run, winning five of their last six games, including an upset of Syracuse in the ACC tournament.
Warren was the key. And he really wanted a second chance at the NCAA tournament.
As a freshman last year, he managed only four points as N.C. State lost to Temple 76-72 at the University of Dayton Arena in its opening game. He's grown a lot in one year, leading the ACC with 24.8 points per game this season and hitting the 40-point mark twice.
He got off to a bad start on Tuesday, missing his first two shots and picking up two fouls in the first 4 minutes, 14 seconds. Warren checked back into the game and hit a jumper for his first points at the 11:29 mark.
Christon, who was Warren's roommate at Brewster Academy for one year, kept the Musketeers in it during the first half. He scored off two drives to the basket, starting an 8-1 run. Stainbrook's reverse layup trimmed it to 27-26 with 2:22 left. Jordan Vandenberg's three-point play gave N.C. State a 34-28 advantage at halftime.
Dee Davis hit Xavier's first 3-pointer, and Christon scored on a fast-break lay-in that cut it to 39-37.
That's when Warren took over.
He had a pair of pull-up jumpers, followed by a steal and a lay-up as N.C. State rebuilt the lead to 51-42. He had another pull-up jumper and a fast-break dunk that made it 57-47 with 7:56 to go. Xavier never got closer than seven points the rest of the way, fading down the stretch.
The biggest question for Xavier was how Stainbrook's left knee would hold up. The Big East's second-leading rebounder sprained a ligament, sat out the final regular season game and was extremely limited in two Big East conference games.
He was back in form, but Xavier didn't have enough other scoring options to keep up.