Friday, April 19, 2024
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NC State stuns North Carolina, wins ACC Tournament behind D.J. Burns Jr., DJ Horne and an unshakeable spirit

WASHINGTON — D.J. Burns Jr. turned to his parents, beaming. Dwight Sr. had a matching smile. Takela wasn’t smiling yet, but rather holding back tears while not counting her chickens … yet. If anyone knew not to assume anything until the clock hit zeroes in the ACC Tournament, it was NC State fans.

But somehow the team playing its fifth game in five games was the team surging to the finish line. The 50-50 balls? The key stops? The big buckets from places familiar and surprising? They all belonged to NC State.

And so when Burns Jr.’s job was done, after he had exited to an uproarious ovation and after his teammates had done the same, he had a simple message for his parents just before the buzzer sounded on an 84-76 win.

“I told you.”

What, exactly, had he told them?

“I told them last night that I was gonna give it my all,” he said. “I didn’t care how many points I scored, I didn’t care anything about that other stuff.”

He may not have cared about his points, but his team needed every one of his 20. In his 160th career game, he hit his first career 3-pointer — he had been 0 for 10 in his career — and tied a career high with seven assists. And he did it all with a smile on his face.

“I tell anyone: When I stop having fun with it, I’ll be done, and if I can’t smile, it’s probably not something I’m gonna do,” he said. “Life is all about having fun. It just happens to be through basketball. I’m gonna be a happy person regardless.”

Burns’ 20 points were second only to DJ Horne, who posted 29 and also had his family in the crowd. They donned “Why Not Us?” T-shirts. It was the phrase Horne said after a 74-69 upset over Duke in the quarterfinals, and his mother Tivona knew she had to make some spur-of-the-moment apparel.  

“It hasn’t even hit me yet,” she said as the team waited to load the bus. “Happy, proud of them. They accomplished a lot. Nobody thought they would be here. Tuesday to Saturday? They did it. They did it.”

Why not NC State? The Wolfpack lost seven of their last nine regular-season games, including their final four in a row.

Why not NC State? No team in ACC Tournament history had won five games in five days, and the only team to do it since the NCAA Tournament began in 1939 was Kemba Walker’s storied 2011 UConn team.

Why not NC State? The last 12 consecutive ACC Tournament title winners had led the championship game at halftime; the Wolfpack trailed by one at the break despite an excellent half. Surely they’d run out of steam, right?

Wrong. This was a team that would not be denied. And it started — and ended — with an unshakeable belief. For Burns, it started nearly two years ago, when he arrived in Raleigh by way of Knoxville, Tennessee (a redshirt season at Tennessee) and then Rock Hill, South Carolina (three seasons at Winthrop), and Kevin Keatts believed in him.

“I’m so thankful for that man,” Burns said. “He put me into a whole ‘nother realm of basketball. He told me when I came here that nobody believes in me, [but] he does, and we’re gonna get it done. We didn’t get it done in the first year, but look where we’re at now.

“I told my coaches, ‘I’m gonna go in, I’m gonna get the job done for you.’ I had a little rough patch this season. I told them, ‘I’m gonna make up for every moment,’ and that’s what we did.”

Plenty of teams believe they can win. Very few deliver. And for that it takes more than belief. It takes some talented basketball players, and for one magical stretch in the nation’s capital, those talented NC State pieces finally came together. Burns went right at ACC All-Defensive Team member Armando Bacot. Horne went right at every defender North Carolina tried to throw his way. After missing the first game of the tournament, the hometown hero played one of the finest games of his long-winding career — two years at Illinois State and two more at Arizona State — on the biggest stage.

“I’m feeling all types of emotions right now, but the job is not done,” he said. “Now we’re playing in March. This is the real reason why I came home. … I see the team that won back in ’87. They still walk around with so much respect, man, and to know that this is a different generation now and my name will be a part of that — some history — I can’t even put it into my thought process right now.”

There’s a theme here: guys who in the moment couldn’t quite believe it happened but always believed it could happen. There’s another theme: guys who had been counted out, who had ups and downs not just this season but at prior stops. Exactly zero players in the Wolfpack’s seven-man rotation started his career in Raleigh, North Carolina. They’ve found not just a home there, but a family that came together in a way no ACC team has done before.

“This team has been through so much, and everyone could have easy checked out and gave up,” said Casey Morsell, a Virginia transfer. “It was easy, whether it be injuries, guys leaving, guys not playing, just different rotations … everything possible that could go wrong this season happened, and we just stayed together, kept believing. We love each other, talk every day. We’re brothers, and that bond will never be broken.”

Their spirit could never be broken, either. Morsell briefly left with a groin issue but returned, his defense tenacious. Missouri transfer (by way of France) Mohamed Diarra was the poster child of the bumps and bruises required to win a title, a cut lip unable to contain a massive smile after an 11-point, 14-rebound performance. It was his second double-double of the tournament after just two in the regular season. Stanford transfer Michael O’Connell, who hit an all-time buzzer beater to force overtime against Virginia, snuck in with 10 points, even on an off shooting night.

It’s a group full of second and third chances, of young men who wanted a home and found one, of players who bought into each other more than anything else.

“This is for everyone who needs a story about an underdog who a lot of people are betting against,” Morsell said. “We were them. We were those guys, and we just embraced it. We embraced the story, we embraced the struggle, and that’s why we’re here today.”

What NC State just accomplished will not soon be forgotten, but as DJ Horne said, they’re not done.

And after five magical days, that begs the question: Why not NC State?

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