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Ben Middlebrooks scores career-high 21 points, N.C. State stays hot in 80-67 win over Texas Tech

PITTSBURGH (AP) — North Carolina State is getting a little tired of being asked if it's tired.

The way the Wolfpack are playing, it's hard to blame them.

Ben Middlebrooks scored a career-high 21 points and 11th-seeded N.C. State surged past sixth-seeded Texas Tech 80-67 on Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Wolfpack (23-14), who won five games in five days in the ACC Tournament to earn an automatic bid, didn't look hung over emotionally or physically while capturing their first March Madness game in nine years.

“We heard a lot about fatigue,” Middlebrooks said. "It seems like we’re getting stronger every game we play.”

It certainly seemed that way. N.C. State didn't miss a beat when Burns ran into foul trouble in the first half. Middlebrooks stepped in and found plenty of room to work inside against the smaller Red Raiders.

“We completely played the game through our post,” Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts said. “We really went inside out and it worked out for us.”

The 6-foot-9, 275-pound Burns finished with 16 points. Mo Diarra had 17 points and 12 rebounds for N.C. State, and DJ Horne also scored 16. The Wolfpack, who dropped four straight games at the end of the regular season to play themselves off the tournament bubble, have now won six straight.

“When you’ve got transfers, people think it’s supposed to happen right away. We lost 34 points from our guards (from last year),” Keatts said. “It took a little time for us to get clicking on both ends of the floor.”

N.C. State will face 14th-seeded Oakland on Saturday, ensuring a double-digit seed will advance to the South Region semifinals. The Grizzlies beat third-seeded Kentucky 80-76 earlier Thursday night.

Joe Toussaint led the Red Raiders (23-11) with 16 points, but Texas Tech made just 7 of 31 3-pointers and couldn't keep pace in the second half. Warren Washington, playing for just the second time since Feb. 12 due to a foot injury, had six points and eight rebounds in 18 minutes.

“The season’s been filled with a lot of things I probably like can’t control but at the end of the day, that happens,” Washington said. “I can’t complain. I’ve just got to move on.”

N.C. State broke the game open with a 13-2 surge midway through the second half, highlighted by a pretty bounce pass from Michael O'Connell that turned into a dunk by Diarra and a soft running hook shot by Burns that made it 65-51.

The Red Raiders had relied on defense to reach the tournament in coach Grant McCasland's first season. Texas Tech came in 18-0 when holding opponents under 70 points and just 5-10 when teams reach that threshold.

N.C. State hit the 70-point mark on a layup by Middlebrooks with 4:06 to go.

“I just thought they were tougher than we were,” McCasland said. “I thought Middlebrooks, Diarra, their rebounding, their physicality and the combo of DJ and DJ scoring inside and out ... I thought they (just) beat us.”

It's been a remarkable turnaround over the last 10 days for N.C. State, which entered the ACC Tournament as the 10th seed and was dealing with questions about Keatts' future. The Wolfpack responded by beating rivals Duke, Virginia and North Carolina, the last a decisive victory in the title game.

Keatts admitted he was worried about how his team would respond emotionally against an opponent it barely knows. Turns out N.C. State was just fine thanks to Middlebrooks, a transfer from Clemson who has been a key reserve but rarely the focal point.

That changed against the Red Raiders. The 6-10 Middlebrooks tied his career high of 14 points set in January against Wake Forest in the first half. He kept going in the second. And when Burns — who plays a throwback under-the-rim game — got going after halftime, Texas Tech was scrambling to keep up.

It couldn't, sending N.C. State to the second round for the first time since 2015, when the Wolfpack won two games in Pittsburgh to reach the Sweet 16. Another chance awaits this weekend against the Horizon League champion Golden Grizzlies.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness