COLUMBUS, Ohio — Getting into the NCAA tournament is the hard part for North Carolina State.
Winning a first game? Not that difficult, apparently.
Richard Howell, who started his high school career at Central Gwinnett and finished at Wheeler, doubled his average with 22 points, and 11th-seeded North Carolina State used its muscle inside and sticky defense to upset San Diego State 79-65 on Friday in a second-round East Regional game.
The Wolfpack (23-12) advances to play the winner of Belmont-Georgetown on Sunday at Nationwide Arena.
Lorenzo Brown added 17 points, C.J. Leslie 15 and Scott Wood 10 for the Wolfpack, who are now 12-5 in their first NCAA games. N.C. State has won at least a game in seven of their last eight trips.
Jamaal Franklin had 23 points and Chase Tapley 19 for the Aztecs (26-8), regular-season champs of the Mountain West.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for the Wolfpack under first-year head coach Mark Gottfried. They’ve improved by eight wins over last season, which ended with the firing of coach Sidney Lowe, and they made it to the NCAA tournament despite losing four in a row in February.
Up by four at the break, the Wolfpack didn’t let up. Wood’s 3-pointer from the right corner pushed the lead to 43-36.
The teams traded baskets, with the offenses — for the first time all day — getting the upper hand.
The Aztecs suddenly found the range but Leslie nailed two free throws and Brown hit a 3 from the corner off a kickout pass from Leslie to keep North Carolina State up 54-48 midway through the half.
Howell, averaging under 11 a game, had 22 after hitting a spin move and drawing a foul, then completing the three-point play midway through the second 20 minutes. On the latter play, Tim Shelton — the Aztecs’ best big man — picked up his fourth foul.
Howell was a beast inside for the Wolfpack, also stepping outside to hit a couple of high-arching, 12-foot jumpers.
Still, with the Aztecs scoring on five consecutive possessions, they drew to 57-54.
Gottfried called a timeout to talk to his troops, and it apparently worked.
Out of the timeout, Williams hit a short shot. After a San Diego State miss, Brown made a 14-footer with a hand in his face for a 61-54.
After Garrett Green dunked for the Aztecs, the Wolfpack came right back with back-to-back baskets to get some breathing room. First, Leslie dribbled laterally to the lane and pulled up to hit a 12-foot jumper. The Aztecs missed, then Painter, averaging 6.4 points a game, had the first of his two huge plays. He hit a fade from the left baseline for a 65-56 lead.
He later added a three-point play to push the lead to 68-58.
With the clock on their side, the Wolfpack then were able to be patient while the Aztecs scrambled.
The Wolfpack shot 58.5 percent from the field for the game and held the Aztecs to 38 percent.
The Wolfpack rode an 8-3 run to close the half to take a 33-29 lead. They did it by working the ball inside on the offensive end and playing physical, helping defense.
North Carolina State, shooting .463 on the season, made 52 percent of its shots from the field in the opening half.