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‘Everybody believes in this moment’: How a miraculous shot has NC State in the ACC Tournament title game

WASHINGTON — NC State walk-on Jordan Snell spent Friday morning watching March Madness buzzer beaters, seeing the most unlikely of shots go in.

But this one? No, this couldn’t go in, could it?

“I thought it was gonna roll out.”

Like Snell, Alex Nunnally has not seen the court this ACC Tournament, but he’s seen it all when it comes to the Wolfpack. Heartbreaking losses. National championships. No, he was not alive for the program’s magical 1983 run, but the lifelong fan has watched the documentary “so many times in my life.”

But you’ll have to forgive even the most dyed-in-the-wool NC State supporter if he didn’t believe it would be even close.

“I thought it was gonna hit the other side of the backboard.”

But it didn’t hit the other side of the backboard. Oh, it hit the backboard, sure, and hit it hard. It hit the rim, too, and spun around for good measure. And then it dropped, and Michael O’Connell’s name was etched into NC State and college basketball lore.

“I just got the outlet from Casey [Morsell], and I just wanted to push the ball up court and try to get a shot myself or for a teammate, and I just felt some room and tried to step into it with confidence, try to knock it down,” O’Connell said.

NC State’s 73-65 overtime triumph over Virginia — its fourth win in four days — was the best of what March has to offer. Call it magic, miracles, madness. NC State has it all on its side. The Wolfpack trailed by six with 43 seconds left when Ryan Dunn fouled Morsell on a 3-point attempt. Morsell made all three free throws. After empty possessions by both teams, Isaac McKneely, Virginia’s 87% free-throw shooter, missed the front end of a one-and-one, the Cavaliers’ fourth miss in their final five trips to the free-throw line at the end of regulation.

Virginia — perhaps spooked by Dunn’s foul — opted not to foul, even with three fouls to give and leading by three. Several NC State players were surprised by the decision, but O’Connell didn’t give it much thought. And it’s a good thing he didn’t. Perhaps if he had, it would have spun out. Or it would have hit the other side of the backboard. Or a million other things could have happened. But, like this tournament has gone so far, the one thing that NC State needed to happen did.


The job, of course, wasn’t done. As if 160 minutes of basketball over four days wasn’t enough, the Wolfpack needed five more.

And for those five more, they turned to DJ Burns Jr. The imposing lefty scored seven of NC State’s first nine points in overtime, with the final three coming on an and-one plus the free throw which gave his team the lead for good. The back-and-forth between Burns and Virginia’s Jordan Minor was as throwback as it gets. Burns getting the opportunity in the biggest moments and converting time after time was a bit of a full-circle moment.

“My whole life,” Burns said about how long he’s spent working on his footwork and touch. “I still think I’m still finding a social life due to how much I’ve spent in the gym.”

The social life — err, social media, rather — took care of itself. He was trending and got a shout out from Donovan Mitchell. His reaction? Subdued.

“That’s pretty cool. That doesn’t happen too much, so I appreciate the respect.”

What NC State is doing right now doesn’t happen too much either.

Only one team has ever won five games in a single conference tournament: the Kemba Walker-led 2010-11 UConn Huskies, whose March run is the stuff of legends. After storming through the Big East Tournament, they stormed to the NCAA Tournament title, too.

But this NC State team doesn’t have a Kemba Walker, nor can it even begin to think about further March goals. Saturday night’s final against North Carolina is the only way to guarantee an NCAA Tournament berth. What this team does have is guys who buy in, who didn’t care about the odds, who didn’t fret when they lost seven of their last nine regular-season games. Burns said even some team parents didn’t think they’d advance this far.

“This team is hard,” Mohamed Diarra said. “We’ve got hard, hard mental. We can’t quit, even if we lose by 20, we don’t quit. That’s who we are.”

Perhaps the spirit of the team is best encapsulated by the chain that hangs across Burns’ chest, with an iced-out sun, cloud and raindrops.

“Tonight’s the perfect example of that, man,” Burns said. “To me, it’s like a little reminder that even if it’s raining, there can still be sunshine. Don’t ever get too high, get too low. Just be consistent, be yourself, and everything will work out, as it has been.”

When legs are tired and odds are long and games seem all but over, that’s what NC State has clung to.

“I can’t say I don’t believe it,” Diarra said. “Because everybody believes in this moment.”

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