Mar 17, 2024 - Sports

N.C. State is college basketball's Cinderella, once again

Mohamed Diarra under the confetti at Capital One Arena in Washington after N.C. State's improbable ACC Tournament victory. Mohamed Diarra under the confetti at Capital One Arena in Washington after N.C. State's improbable ACC Tournament victory.

Mohamed Diarra under the confetti at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., after N.C. State's improbable ACC Tournament victory. Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Red and white confetti stuck to DJ Horne's face. Tears filled the Raleigh native's eyes. And when he searched for words Saturday to describe N.C. State's storybook ACC Tournament championship victory over UNC, he said, "This for the city, man. This for the 919."

Why it matters: N.C. State's five-wins-in-five-days run to its first ACC title in 37 years, led in part by Horne who grew up 10 minutes from campus, served as a reminder that it's still possible to be a romantic about college athletics, despite countless reports to the contrary.

  • Wolfpack fans and alums instinctively rushed Hillsborough Street and around the campus belltower, which lit up red for the unexpected occasion.

(N.C.) State of play: The Wolfpack entered the tournament as the 10th seed and with their coach on the hot seat. They beat Louisville and Syracuse in the first two rounds, but it wasn't until a stunner over Duke in the third round that fans started to dream.

  • Then, in the semifinals, they pulled out a miraculous overtime win over Virginia thanks to Michael O'Connell's bank-shot three-pointer at the end of regulation. That momentum carried into Saturday, when they were in control for nearly all of an 84-76 victory over rival and top-seeded UNC in the title game.
DJ Horne (right) and DJ Burns celebrate NC State's win
Hey, mister DJ: DJ Burns (left) and DJ Horne celebrate in the second half. Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Between the lines: The storylines are countless. First, there's Horne, the 6-foot-1 guard who played for Cary High School and Trinity Christian in Fayetteville. Horne started his collegiate career at Arizona State but transferred home to N.C. State last year, and scored 29 points in Saturday's championship.

  • Then there's big man DJ Burns, a 6-9, 275-pound graduate student who gained fans nationwide when he drilled his first career 3-pointer on his way to 20 points.
  • And radio play-by-play announcer Gary Hahn, who's set to retire at the end of this season after 34 years as the voice of the Wolfpack, was on the mic to call his first ACC tournament championship.

Flashback: State's run resurrected memories of the sport's most famous Cinderella performance — when the 1983 Wolfpack pulled off an ACC tournament title and continued on to a last-second victory over Houston in the national championship game that sent coach Jim Valvano sprinting around the court looking for someone to hug.

What they're saying: Reaction was widespread and deep (even a few UNC fans offered reluctant congrats to their rivals).

  • BJ Barham, a State alum and the lead singer of the band American Aquarium, drove to Washington with his daughter early Saturday morning to catch the championship game.
  • Attorney general and gubernatorial hopeful Josh Stein called State's run, "Truly remarkable. … I've never seen that before."
  • And longtime Wolfpack writer Tim Peeler, who noted on Saturday morning that it had been 13,523 days since N.C. State's last ACC tournament title, closed the night by posting, "It's been 0 days since @PackMensBball has won an @accmbb championship."

What's next: N.C. State awaits Sunday night's NCAA Tournament Selection Show to see where it will play next. UNC and Duke do, too.

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