How N.C. State came out of nowhere and wound up in the Final Four

How N.C. State came out of nowhere and wound up in the Final Four

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

By the time the North Carolina State men’s basketball team returned to campus following a fourth straight loss to close the regular season March 9, its players had a clear understanding of the path required to reach the NCAA tournament. The Wolfpack’s body of work fell well short of consideration for an at-large berth, and thus its only path into the field of 68 was to win five games in as many days at the ACC tournament in D.C.

Speculation surrounding Coach Kevin Keatts’s uncertain job security presented a potential distraction, except his charges never allowed such reports to interfere with their preparation for the conference tournament opener against last-place Louisville at Capital One Arena. Keatts’s unflappable demeanor instead provided those in the locker room with an understated confidence that the improbable was achievable.

During a film session, Keatts pointed to minor fixes — in ball screen coverages, for instance, and transition defense — that were more about the Wolfpack’s attention to detail than the opponent. Players paid extra attention to the scouting report given the stakes to extend the season. Dedication behind the scenes transformed North Carolina State from an afterthought to a national championship contender in a matter of weeks.

The 11th-seeded Wolfpack (26-14) draws No. 1 seed Purdue (33-4) in the first game of a Final Four doubleheader Saturday at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. A victory would send N.C. State into Monday night’s championship game against top-seeded Connecticut, the reigning national champions, or No. 4 seed Alabama.

The Wolfpack’s journey to a fourth appearance in the Final Four required wins in nine consecutive elimination games. The run started with a little-noticed conference tournament game on a Tuesday afternoon in D.C. and continued through Sunday’s upset win over rival Duke in the Elite Eight.

“It’s a miracle run,” Keatts said, “but we’re not surprised.”

The most unlikely of those outcomes came in the ACC tournament semifinals, when N.C. State, seeded 10th, trailed No. 3 seed Virginia by three points in the final seconds of regulation.

After Cavaliers guard Isaac McKneely missed the front end of a one-and-one that could have sealed the result, N.C. State’s Casey Morsell gathered the rebound and passed the ball to Michael O’Connell, who released a shot from well behind the three-point arc in front of the Wolfpack bench.

The graduate point guard’s desperation bid made it over McKneely’s outstretched right hand, bounced off the backboard and rattled through the cylinder at the buzzer to force overtime. The Wolfpack scored the final nine points in the extra period to claim a 73-65 victory, continuing the program’s most memorable March since N.C. State won the national championship in 1983.

“I think throughout this journey everyone has made huge plays,” O’Connell said. “Whether in the moment it might not seem big, whether it’s just a deflection or steal, but it changes the trajectory of our run or the game. There are plays consistently being made by everyone that might not be covered or might not be in the stat sheet or might not be all over social media.”

Replays of O’Connell’s season-saving three-pointer made the rounds on television and social media, but in the ACC tournament final against No. 1 seed North Carolina, forward Mohamed Diarra’s putback of his own missed layup late in the second half delivered another pivotal, if far less viral, sequence.

After the Tar Heels had drawn within 61-58, Diarra’s basket put N.C. State in front by two possessions and triggered a 13-5 burst to secure an 84-76 win. It marked the first time a double-digit seed won the ACC tournament title.

Each of the five programs North Carolina State dispatched at Capital One Arena — Louisville, Syracuse, Duke, Virginia and North Carolina — owns at least one national championship.

“I don’t think you can win [that many] games in a row in college basketball if that’s not your identity,” Keatts said. “I think that’s what tells us who we are. I go back to — and I think about this now: You go into every game knowing that if you lose that you’re packing up, and your season is over. It’s probably going to be a long time [until] someone goes in on a Tuesday in the ACC tournament and wins a championship on Saturday. . . .

“You just don’t accidentally get hot and win so many games in a row with the type of teams that you play.”

In addition to fine-tuning his team’s execution during the postseason, Keatts has managed to forge trust and cohesion among teammates that took months to blossom in large part because three members of the starting lineup played elsewhere last season.

Leading scorer DJ Horne (16.8 points per game) spent his previous two seasons at Arizona State before the graduate guard from Raleigh, N.C., came back to play for his hometown school. O’Connell transferred from Stanford, and Diarra, a 6-foot-10 junior from France, played at Missouri last season.

The arrival of DJ Burns Jr., however, has been perhaps the most impactful find via the transfer portal. The 6-9 graduate forward spent his first three seasons at Winthrop before transferring to N.C. State in 2022. He has become the face of the Wolfpack during this NCAA tournament with a gentle touch around the rim and elegant footwork belying his listed weight of 275 pounds.

Burns was selected most outstanding player of the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament’s South Region, where the matchup conundrum sparked the Wolfpack with 29 points on 13-for-19 shooting with four rebounds, three assists and zero turnovers during a 76-64 win against the fourth-seeded Blue Devils in the region final.

“I thought we could do it the whole time,” Burns said of winning the ACC tournament. “If you look back at the teams that we played to get to that point, Louisville we played them and took Syracuse to some close games. We had already beaten and went to overtime with Virginia [in the regular season], close games for the most part against Duke, so we knew we could do it. It was just a matter of doing the things that were necessary to get the job done, and I think we’ve taken that momentum and kept it rolling.”

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