COLUMBUS, Ohio — Richard Howell has been a solid, if often overlooked, part of North Carolina State's resurgence this season.
On Friday, he decided to step into the spotlight.
Howell doubled his average, scoring 22 points, and 11th-seeded North Carolina State used its muscle inside and a sticky defense to upset San Diego State 79-65 on Friday in a second-round East Regional game.
"None of us had ever played in a game like this," Howell said. "This gave us a big confidence boost."
The 6-foot-8, 250-pound Howell got the Wolfpack (23-12) off on the right foot with 15 first-half points, carrying them into a showdown with the winner of Belmont-Georgetown on Sunday at Nationwide Arena.
"In today's game, we felt we could have success around the basket," first-year coach Mark Gottfried said. "We made the decision to go toward Richard, and he lit up like a Christmas tree."
It was easy to see that the Wolfpack had a size advantage on the surprising Aztecs (26-8), who were back in the tournament despite losing four starters from last year's squad that lost to eventual champion Connecticut.in the regional semifinals.
But what the Wolfpack — and Howell in particular — did in the paint was almost scary to watch.
"It's one thing to be big," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "It's another thing to be big and good. And they were big and good. Obviously, Richard Howell was great for them and got them out of the gate. He was fantastic."
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. North Carolina State has won at least a game in seven of its last eight trips.
It's been a remarkable turnaround for the Wolfpack under 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.
Howell, averaging 10.7 points a game, hit 7 of 9 shots — including some where he stepped outside to pour in jumpers.
"He does it all the time in practice," said Brown, who also chipped in with eight assists. "I'm just glad he was hitting good shots. He was just feeling it, I guess."
Jamaal Franklin had 23 points and Chase Tapley 19 for the Aztecs (26-8), regular-season champs of the Mountain West.
"I could have seen us going farther," Franklin said. "That's why I'm disappointed."
Up by four at the break thanks to Howell, the Wolfpack didn't let up. Wood's 3-pointer from the right corner pushed the lead to 43-36.
Howell scored his final points on a spin move that he turned into a three-point play with 10:08 left that gave the Wolfpack a 57-50 lead. On that same play, he drew a fourth foul on the Aztecs' best big man, Tim Shelton.
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.
"We've been through a lot this year," Brown said. "We've played a lot of great teams, like Syracuse and North Carolina and teams like that. Coming down to the end, we made big shots."
They did once again.
Out of the timeout, CJ Williams hit a short jumper. After a San Diego State miss, Brown made a 14-footer with a hand in his face for a 61-54 lead.
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 DeShawn Painter 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.
The Wolfpack, a popular choice to pull the upset, will have a hard time sneaking up on anyone else.
"I have believed if they did things the right way, if they played good defense and executed at the right times, they had a chance," Gottfried said.
Plus, they also had a secret weapon.
"I didn't want this to be our last game," Howell said.