Throughout the regular season, North Carolina State's offense stagnated without T.J. Warren. So went the ACC Player of the Year, so went the Wolfpack. Playing in the biggest game of their season, Warren's teammates stepped up in the first half.
Warren took care of the rest.
The N.C. State star scored 16 of his 25 points in the second half and Ralston Turner scored 17 more as the Wolfpack pulled away in the second half to defeat Xavier, 74-59, in their First Four matchup in Dayton.
The last at-large team allowed in the field of 68, N.C. State earns the No. 12 seed in the daunting Midwest region and will play Saint Louis on Thursday. A controversial selection over the weekend—especially given their admission pushed Larry Brown and SMU out—the Wolfpack showed their mettle against Xavier.
They shot nearly 55 percent as a team and locked down on defense, forcing Musketeers leading scorer Semaj Christon into seven turnovers. Second-leading scorer Justin Martin shot just 3-of-12 from the field en route to eight points.
In a game where many thought N.C. State was overly dependent on its star, it was actually the Musketeers whose season ended thanks to the struggles of its top players.
The solid scoring output provides a little bit of redemption for Warren, whose first NCAA tournament appearance was among his worst collegiate games. In a round of 64 loss to Temple last season in the same arena, Warren had only four points and was largely absent.
Other than a short spell in the first half, Warren was present and accounted for this time around. He's scored at least 20 points in 18 consecutive games, and Warren's 30th overall 20-plus point games is a school record.
As noted by the school's Twitter feed, Warren also broke the single-season scoring record of perhaps the most famous player in Wolfpack history:
BREAKING: TJ ( @T24Warren) sets school record for points in a season. 839. Old record was 838 by David Thompson— NC State MensBball (@PackMensBball) March 19, 2014
Spectacular in the loss was Xavier center Matt Stainbrook, who has been limited almost the entire month with a knee injury. Stainbrook missed a late-season loss to Villanova and played a total 24 minutes in the Big East tournament. He underwent extensive cryogenic treatment to ready himself for extended minutes.
"It gives you the same effect of an ice bath for 15 to 20 minutes except it does a little better…sort of shocks your system, so it helps it out that way," Stainbrook told reporters at a press conference this week.
Working most of his night against Wolfpack 7-footer Jordan Vandenberg, the junior center not only played extended minutes but dominated at certain stretches. His 12 first-half points accounted for nearly half the Musketeers' offense, and he finished the game with 19 points and nine rebounds.
ESPN Stats & Info pointed out the hulking Stainbrook was especially efficient down low in the first 20 minutes:
Matt Stainbrook dominating the paint for Xavier, but NC State up 6 points at the half pic.twitter.com/nCxpPKJnXc— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 19, 2014
The story of the first half, though, was whether N.C. State could survive without its best player.
Warren, who finished third nationally at 24.8 points per game, picked up two fouls within the first five minutes and had to spend much of his time adjusting his game. N.C. State was defined mostly by Warren's efficiency on offense during the regular season and saw its offense crater at multiple points when he's struggled.
Worried a blowout could be coming, Eamon Brennan of ESPN noted a possible competitive balance change to help the Wolfpack:
NC State should be credited 1.5 points for every normal point they score with T.J. Warren on the bench— Eamonn Brennan (@eamonnbrennan) March 19, 2014
Only Warren's teammates surprisingly didn't need help.
Seven different non-Warren players stepped up and scored at least two points in the first 20 minutes. Turner led the way with seven points and Kyle Washington made all three of his shots for six points. The Wolfpack played well enough to subsist without Warren, staying ahead on the scoreboard and seemingly finding a rhythm.
Coach Mark Gottfried just couldn't risk keeping him out of the game long.
Warren was subbed back in the game not long after picking up his second foul and went to work. Despite his short absence, he led the team with nine points at the break and even risked his on-court status on a risky block-charge call. The risk worked out for Gottfried and Warren, who did struggle a bit with his shot early.
With foul trouble in the past, Warren was unleashed in the second half. He got out on multiple fast breaks, sprinting down the floor and awaiting passes from Tyler Lewis, who finished with eight assists.
Coupled with Turner's proficiency from outside, N.C. State couldn't be stopped on either end of the floor. The Musketeers, who trailed the entire second half, never led again after scoring the game's first bucket.
Although it's seen as a disadvantage to play in a First Four game, history says N.C. State has a better chance of advancing than one would expect.
Since the advent of the 68-team format, at least one First Four team has moved on to the round of 32 or beyond. Last season, 13th seeded La Salle made it to the Sweet 16 before being eliminated by Wichita State.
Advancing to the second weekend is probably a stretch with No. 4 Louisville looming, but the Wolfpack may well push Saint Louis to the brink.
The Billikens lost four of their last five games to finish the regular season and grade out as a questionable No. 5 seed overall. They ranked only 176th nationally in offensive efficiency, the worst efficiency rating of any at-large team on either end of the floor, per Ken Pomeroy.
Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated noted the similarities between Xavier and Saint Louis:
Tell you what N.C. State could very well beat Saint Louis. Billikens, like Xavier, have a hard time scoring.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 19, 2014
Ranked 34th overall in Pomeroy's advanced metrics, Saint Louis is considered the worst of the No. 5 seeds. Given N.C. State's success offensively with and without Warren on Tuesday, the Wolfpack have the profile to make a real run.
No matter what, though, Gottfried's squad has at least atoned from its disappointment a year ago.
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