By Joe Kay Associated Press
DAYTON, Ohio — With the game hanging in the balance, Xavier couldn’t stop T.J. Warren. Or anybody else, really. And that’s what will bother the Musketeers the most in their longer-than-expected offseason.
Warren, the ACC’s player of the year, scored 16 of his 25 points in the second half on Tuesday night, and North Carolina State pulled away to a 74-59 victory in the NCAA tournament’s First Four.
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 (22-12) 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.
“We picked the wrong night to play bad,” coach Chris Mack said.
The Musketeers’ first season in the Big East was marked by inconsistency. Their young lineup went through a lot of growing pains.
“It’s been a true roller coaster,” Stainbrook said. “Ups and downs.”
N.C. State also had a young and inexperienced lineup that finally pulled it all together at the right time. The 12th-seeded Wolfpack headed to the airport for a two-hour flight to Orlando, Fla., and 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 from getting any traction in the second half.
“He knows how to use his body and keep his body under control through contact,” Mack said. “He hit a couple of tough floaters that not many kids at this level can do.”
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.
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.
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 or defense to keep up.
Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apjoekay