In his second try, T.J. Warren became an NCAA tournament star.
The ACC’s player of the year put on a show Tuesday night, scoring 16 of his 25 points in the second half of North Carolina State’s 74-59 victory over Xavier on the opening day of the NCAA’s First Four.
Then, it was off to the airport and a two-hour flight to Orlando, Fla., where the fast-closing Wolfpack (22-12) will play on Thursday against fifth-seeded St. Louis in the Midwest Regional.
Warren was the main reason N.C. State got another flight to somewhere other than home. He made up for his forgettable tournament showing a year earlier on the same floor and prevented Xavier (21-14) from getting any traction in the second half.
“I just wanted to come out and be aggressive,” said Warren, who was 10 of 18 from the field. “My shots wouldn’t fall in the first half, but my teammates did a great job of finding me.”
No surprise there.
“Eventually in a 40-minute game, he’s going to find a way,” coach Mark Gottfried said.
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’s biggest disappointment was its inability to slow down the Wolfpack in the second half, when N.C. State shot 61.5 percent from the field.
“We weren’t ourselves today on defense,” Stainbrook said. “We build our identity on defense. When we can’t get stops, it ruins everything else. Overall, it was just a shambles.”
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.
The Wolfpack went six years between NCAA appearances before coach Mark 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.
“Eventually in a 40-minute game, he’s going to find a way,” Gottfried said.
In the opening game on Tuesday, Albany got its first NCAA tournament victory, holding on for a 71-64 win over Mount St. Mary’s. D.J. Evans scored 22 points and hit two clinching free throws with 12.6 seconds left.
The Great Danes (19-14) earned a shot against overall No. 1 seed and top-ranked Florida in Orlando on Thursday.
The game provided a wild start to the tournament. Albany scored the first 13 points and led 21-2 after the opening 8 1/2 minutes, only to have Mount St. Mary’s (16-17) respond with a 21-2 run of its own to draw even.
Adelaide, Australia native Peter Hooley hit two free throws and, the next time down court, scored on a driving layup over a defender for a 67-64 lead. Mount St. Mary’s, which hit 12 of 37 3-pointers, missed two of them in the final 68 seconds.
“We had to go on a little run of our own, and we did,” said Hooley, who had 20 points. “They went on another run, and then we had to fight back and make another run. That’s what we pride ourselves on, being resilient. The fact that we managed to pull it out is a great thing.”
Albany got its first NCAA win on its fourth try.
“Our goal coming into this game was to stay big, play big, be strong,” said Great Danes coach Will Brown. “I’m proud of my guys. We weathered the storm, we stayed the course, and we made plays down the stretch.”