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NC State’s run to the Final Four gives a sense of pride to those who were with Wolfpack while they were down

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Sometimes you can just feel their presence. All day. Every day. That’s how Debbie Yow described it. 

NC State‘s former AD wouldn’t be the first to describe what it’s like to constantly exist in the orbit of Duke and North Carolina on Tobacco Road. She certainly is one of the most articulate on that subject heading into the Final Four. 

“What I didn’t appreciate fully before I came home in 2010 [is] what it would feel like day-to -day with them as close as they are — 35-40 minutes depending on traffic,”  said Yow, who has been retired since 2019.

NC State was “home” because both of Yow’s sisters had been historic figures at the school. Kay won 737 games in her hall of fame career, spending 33 years with the Wolfpack women. Susan became the Wolfpack’s first female All-American in 1976. 

They all felt the presence. 

“There is constant conversation,” Debbie Yow said. “It would be like Kansas and Kansas State except there are three of them. The bragging rights matter. They have owned us for a period of time in men’s basketball. To break through that really matters.”

The breakthrough against the state’s two dominant basketball powers has migrated all the way to the desert. In fact, NC State got here by beating Duke twice in 17 days. North Carolina was wiped out in the ACC Tournament Championship Game in one of the nine do-or-die games the Wolfpack have faced since finishing the regular season 17-14.  

“I will say I never liked UNC, ever,” NC State leading scorer DJ Horne told reporters on Friday. “Just put that out there.” 

Just so you know.

NC State hasn’t celebrated – or gloated — like this prior to a Final Four, well, perhaps ever. Make that Final Fours. Yow is significant for this discussion because she hired both NC State coaches who have made it this far. Veteran coach Wes Moore – hired by Yow in 2013 — led the Wolfpack women to the national semifinals a 78-59 loss to South Carolina. Kevin Keatts led the men to this place, extending a story that is bordering on one more unlikely than the 1983 national championship Cinderellas. 

The next mountain may be the biggest to climb for NC State, top-seeded Purdue Saturday in one national semifinal. 

“I don’t know that there’s another team in the country that has played with what everyone would consider pressure,” Keatts said. “We lose any game in the ACC, we don’t make the NCAA Tournament. We lose any game in the NCAA, we don’t advance to the Final Four.”

The nine consecutive postseason wins for the men ties a school record. It can’t be stressed enough losing any one of those games would have spelled last rites on the season – and perhaps Keatts’ time at NC State. There is no point pitty patting around the obvious. 

CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander said it earlier this week: “To be clear: Keatts was coaching for his job.” 

The Wolfpack have become a team that won’t admit the obvious. They weren’t a good team. In Keatts’ seventh season something had gone stale. After going to the tournament in Keatts’ first season (2018), the Wolfpack didn’t return until last season. 

In between NC State became the first program to have a case decided by the infamous Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP). The enforcement group was assembled by the NCAA to speed along major cases. NC State’s was anything but speedy. 

Former coach Mark Gottfried had left the program in a bad place. And while the eventual penalties weren’t that damaging, the specter of an investigation had hung over the program for four years. 

“I knew [about the sanctions] a long time before Kevin knew,” Yow recalled. “They said to me, ‘You can’t tell him’ – attorneys at the school. I said, ‘But he’s our coach.’ They said, ‘The FBI says,’

“Kevin actually had a [media] interview and said, ‘No, we’re not in trouble.’ I’m reading that knowing that we are but that the FBI had said I can’t tell him that we are. Four years the poor guy had to deal with that.

“It hurt recruiting a lot.”

But the faithful didn’t know that and probably didn’t want to hear it anyway with the program cratering to 11-21 in 2021-22. During that time North Carolina played for a national championship. Duke was in the process of beating the Pack in five of seven meetings before the recent turnaround. 

“I’m thinking, ‘Uh, oh in Year 7 …,” Yow said. “And, yes, all the other stuff happened in [waiting] four years but it’s still year 7. I’m sick over it. Then it starts and we win and we win.” 

The IARP no longer exists, in part, because of its incompetency. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack are thriving, given those nine chances to get it right. Four times in history NC State has played in the Final Four with their in-state rivals both at home watching – 1950, 1974, 1983, 2024. 

Keatts would not touch any questions even hinting that this run has been vindication. Players and coaches had been coached up well in that sense. 

“It has no meaning,”  guard Casey Morsell said of the criticism that rained down on the program late in the season. “It holds no weight to anybody in the locker room. To do what we’ve done, I don’t know how anybody can hate on us. What we’re doing is special.” 

“They stuck with us,” NC State assistant Joel Justus said of the players. “They kept coming to practice every day. That’s a testament to Kevin who makes the gym fun. I’m sure there are many teams that don’t like coming to practice in February and even into March and lose four in a row [to end the regular season]. Our guys never wavered in their approach. They knew why we were losing and they took steps.” 

This week the DJs – Horne and Burns Jr. – showed up at Raleigh, N.C. Applebee’s. Witnesses said there were hundreds outside waiting to get a glimpse of NC State’s suddenly-rock stars. There are few now that could remember the same scene 41 years ago in Albuquerque, N.M.

In 1983 the Wolfpack defined the modern basketball definition of Cinderella. Their coach Jim Valvano was a force of nature. His mere presence at a local eatery that fateful week drew an Applebee’s-like crowd outside a restaurant. Valvano was inside doing Valvano things, literally dancing on tables. 

We all know how that ended up. In retrospect, NC State’s presence then in the Final Four seemed bigger than it is now even though it was seeded higher (sixth, compared to 11th this time). That group ended up beating one of the best teams of all-time, a Houston squad that featured hall of famers Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. 

Valvano? He could have retired right then and there made millions on the speaking circuit. But he endured. In 1989 the NCAA cleared him in an investigation but found that players had sold shoes and game tickets. The Wolfpack were banned from the 1990 NCAA Tournament. 

His legacy lives on. Valvano’s tragic death in 1993 has been gloriously memorialized by the V Foundation which raises money for cancer research.

He is buried in the same cemetery – Raleigh Memorial Park — as Everett Case. Case came from Indiana high school basketball, stayed 19 years and won 377 games to become the winningest NC State coach in history. 

Case wanted to be buried facing nearby I-70 so he would wave to the boys as they went to play Duke and North Carolina.  

If they don’t know it now, the Wolfpack soon will. They’re playing for something bigger than continuing a nine-game winning streak. That presence never wanes. The Heels and Devils might not be here but, once again, Cinderella is paying attention. 

The Wolfpack are underdogs for the eighth time in 10 games. Are you going to bet against them? They rule the state.  

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