After his block of an East Carolina shot on a third straight possession, N.C. State forward BeeJay Anya waved his arms to the crowd, trying to pump up an audience that to that point in the first half Saturday had been left slightly stunned by the Pirates.
So for that matter was the Wolfpack, which struggled to stop East Carolina on the defensive end and had been reduced to a one-man offense by the Pirates’ revolving door of defensive switches.
That one man was T.J. Warren, though, and he would not be stopped.
Warren scored a career-high 32 while Anya had all five of his blocks during a 15-0 N.C. State run to close out the first half Saturday on the way to a 90-79 Wolfpack win.
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“Warren was just terrific,” East Carolina coach Jeff Lebo said. “He’s a terrific player. We had a hard time matching up with him tonight. Most people do.”
Warren’s previous best was 31 against Florida State last February. He also set career-highs in field goals (14) and 3-point attempts (eight) and tied his career-high for field-goal attempts (23) Saturday.
The Wolfpack hasn’t lost since Jordan Vandenberg returned from injury, and Warren has benefited more than anyone from Vandenberg’s presence. Back at a more comfortable spot on the wing, the points have followed – Warren has reached the 20-point mark in all seven games and the 30-point mark in three.
“I expect that from him,” Vandenberg said. “He gives us a 20-point buffer against any team we’re playing. I haven’t seen a team slow him down yet.”
Cat Barber had 16 points and eight assists for the Wolfpack (9-2) and Vandenberg added a career-high 18 points, his third double-figure game of the season. Sanford’s Akeem Richmond led East Carolina (10-3) with 23 points.
East Carolina nearly upset Duke at Cameron in November, falling 84-73 after being within three points late. Saturday, East Carolina led N.C. State by as many as nine early, knocking in 3-pointers and getting wide-open looks while using a handful of different defenses.
Anya’s defense and Warren’s offense turned the tide before halftime. It started with an Anya block of a Prince Williams dunk attempt with the Wolfpack trailing 38-30. It ended with a Warren putback at the buzzer for his 24th and 25th points of the afternoon and a 45-38 N.C. State lead.
“BeeJay was really the reason anybody had energy in the second half,” Vandenberg said. “He brought life to the team. I had a couple but mine weren’t nearly as spectacular as his. He was swatting it straight down, strong, on them. It was situation-changing for us, especially since we were down.”
The Pirates, meanwhile, are not to be overlooked. They can bomb away from outside, they’re impeccably coached by Lebo, the former UNC guard, and they’re fearless after winning the CIT postseason tournament.
“That’s a good basketball team that we beat today,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “He’s done a great job. They’re quick. They spread the floor. They’re hard to guard. The first 10-12 minutes in the game, they were phenomenal. We had all kinds of trouble guarding them.”
Coaches are prone to embellishing the resumes of their opponents, particularly in victory, but this was no faint praise. It took everything N.C. State had to put away this win.
In the aftermath, Warren’s career-high was almost overlooked by Anya’s blocks – he missed much of the second half with an ankle injury that does not appear to be serious – and Vandenberg’s seven dunks, but this game was a reminder that the Wolfpack is going to go exactly as far as Warren can take it. Right now, it looks like that may be farther than anyone expected.