"We picked the wrong night to play bad," he said.
The Musketeers' struggles were the result of familiar symptoms - careless turnovers, inconsistent play on defense and poor shooting - while North Carolina State brought its 'A' game and had an answer for every Xavier run.
Star forward T.J. Warren was as good as advertised for State, and his sidekick Ralston Turner provided the team with a secondary scorer that is key to the Wolfpack's success. The duo combined for 42 points, with Warren scoring a game-high 25 points on 8-of-10 shooting.
The atmosphere created by the mix of Xavier fans that made the 50 minute trip up I-75 and the many Dayton fans who attend the local event every year was electric. Before the game even started there was a buzz in the arena. When Xavier walked through the court to their seats at halftime of the Albany and Mount St. Mary's game, a loud group of boos was contested by a roar of cheers.
Xavier big man Matt Stainbrook got his first start since injurying himself in the second to last conference game of the regular season against Seton Hall, and he delivered in a big way scoring 12 points in the first half on 6-of-7 shooting while grabbing five boards. Jordan Vandenberg wanted no part of banging on the block with the Musketeers' big man, and he took advantage whenever he got a touch in the first half.
Coming into the game, offensive rebounding looked to be one of the areas where the Musketeers could gain an advantage against the Wolfpack, as State ranks just 338th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, but despite the Musketeers outrebounding the Wolfpack 11-6 on the offensive glass, both teams finished with 12 second chance points.
The Musketeers missed an opportunity in the first half when NC State's star forward TJ Warren checked out of the game at the first media timeout with 15:46 to play in the half. A turnover by Dee Davis on a careless alley-oop attempt and a 3-pointer by Turner right out of the timeout put the Wolfpack up 12-8, and allowed it to withstand the next three-plus minutes with the focal point of the offense on the bench, taking a 14-12 lead into the next media timeout.
Warren checked back in with 12:15 to go and played the rest of the half without picking up his third foul. Martin did hold him in check through the first 20 minutes, as he finished the half with nine points on 3-of-8 shooting and two boards, but that may have taken away from Martin's offense - he missed all six of his 3-point attempts in the game and was just 3-of-12 from the field with eight points.
"When Justin's not hitting threes, it really makes it tough to score for us," Mack said. "We're not a very good shooting team. Teams that have played off of us, teams that have big size, good size around the basket, we try to manufacture as many layups – we have more lay-up plays than anyone in the country, but give NC State credit. They have a lot of size."
Three straight baskets by NC State on a dunk by BeeJay Anya, a transition layup by Warren and a jumper by Anthony Barber, pushed the Wolfpack's lead to 22-14 and forced Chris Mack to call a timeout with 9:04 left in the half.
The Musketeers went on a 12-3 run to cut the Wolfpack's lead to one point, 27-24, with 2:30 to play, but NC State stretched its lead to 34-28 by halftime.
The two teams traded baskets for the first three minutes of the second half, but after X called a timeout at the 17:00 mark, Dee Davis made back-to-back big plays, nailing a three and then getting a steal that led to a transition layup for Christon, to make it 39-37. However, as was the story of the game, the Wolfpack had an answer.
After a timeout by Mark Gottfried, Warren got a transition layup off an assist from Tyler Lewis, and then Lewis got a layup after a steal by Ralston Turner to make it 43-37 at the media timeout with 14:50 to play.
"It seemed like the first five or six minutes of the second half we'd cut it to two, they'd push it up to 8, cut it to 3, push it up to nine," Mack said. "It just seemed like we were fighting that uphill battle the whole game."
State stretched its lead to double-digits, 57-47, on a TJ Warren breakaway dunk just before the 8:00 mark.
Though neither team asks for much scoring out of their point guards, the play they receive from that position often dictates how the team goes. While Warren did the scoring for the Wolfpack, point guard Tyler Lewis ran the show and got the best of Dee Davis. Lewis made some great passes in the second half that helped the Wolfpack extend it's lead to its largest point at 69-52 with 2:35 to play. He scored seven points and dished out eight assists with only one turnover, while Davis finished with five points, two assists and two turnovers. Lewis was forced to play an expanded role (32 minutes) due to freshman Anthony Barber, who he usually splits time with, being sick.
"Tyler I thought played -- just played with a lot of courage," NC State head coach Mark Gottfried said. "He got tired. He knew Cat wasn't going to come in the second half, and he just kept making tough plays. He ends up with eight assists, one turnover and really, really played through some fatigue. I thought he did a great job."
Outside of Christon and Stainbrook, the Musketeers were just 8-for-29 from the field. Stainbrook led the way with 19 points points and nine rebounds, but 12 of those points came in the first half. Christon had 14 points, but turned the ball over seven times and finished with four assists.
After being picked to finish seventh in the Big East by preseason polls, the Musketeers overachieved in their inaugural season in their new conference by finishing third, but even still it wasn't the ending they were wanting.
"(We've had) ups and downs," Strainbrook said, reflecting on the season. "Had low points in the Bahamas. High points on six-, seven-, eight-game winning streaks. But I wouldn't have had it with any other guys. I'm proud of all my teammates. I'm disappointed in myself for letting down the seniors."
Three Musketeers - Isaiah Philmore, Erik Stenger and Tim Whelan - played their last game in a Xavier uniform. Philmore was emotional after the game, having missed the tournament last year and losing in the play-in game this season, but maintained that he was glad he transferred to Xavier from Towson three years ago.
"To be honest, it was a successful season," he said. "We did things that the rest of the world didn't think we could do. I just felt like it was a little too soon. I love this place so much. I love my teammates so much, and I'm really going to miss it. It was the greatest decision ever (to transfer)."