A run to remember: NC State does the improbable but not impossible

Published 4:47 pm Friday, March 22, 2024

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After I went to sleep last Friday night, I got a phone call that woke me up sometime after midnight.

Normally, that would be cause for alarm. But on that particular night, the caller was my brother who was in the midst of searching online for hotel rooms available in and around Washington DC. He was, for some reason, seeking my advice on which locations would be the best to consider, despite the fact that it’s been a while since I’ve been to DC at all.

The reason for the late-night call and late-night hotel reservations was because NC State’s men’s basketball team had just punched their ticket to the championship game of the ACC Tournament, to be played on Saturday, March 16. The tourney this year was being held in our nation’s capital, in the same arena that regularly hosts the Washington Wizards (NBA team) and the Washington Capitals (NHL team).

My brother – an NC State alum, avid college basketball fan, and someone who’s not afraid to take a road trip on a whim – couldn’t resist the opportunity to attend the championship game in person. After all, our team hadn’t been in the conference championship game since 2007, and they hadn’t won the title since 1987. (That was, of course, before my brother and I were even born!)

I think every State fan was eagerly anticipating Saturday’s championship game. I opted to watch the game at home with my parents (though my brother did text us a few photos from inside the arena that night, which was cool). Even at different locations, we all had a good time.

But it wasn’t just the long-awaited return to the championship game that had everybody buzzing on last Saturday. It was the crazy rollercoaster ride that led the team there. NC State started their tourney run on Tuesday, the day that’s reserved for the lowest-performing teams of the conference since the ACC expanded in 2014.

NC State’s run to the championship was a pipe dream on Tuesday for most people. They’d lost the last four games of the season in really disappointing fashion. Some people were wondering if Coach Kevin Keatts had finally run out of time to deliver on his promise when he was hired. (He famously claimed “Kevin Keatts is a winner” during the first press conference of his tenure.)

But while everyone else was counting them out, the basketball team itself had its sights set on big dreams. “Why not us?” became the mantra among the players. They’ve got just as good a chance as any other team at winning the whole thing.

That determination must have motivated the guys because they started winning, and then they just couldn’t stop. There were a few missteps by the players every now and then, and some had to deal with injuries along the way. Mohamed Diarra was fasting for Ramadan, which means that he was playing the games held before sunset on an empty stomach.

But by Saturday night, it felt like nothing could stand in their way. I enjoy watching any basketball game, but that championship game was particularly fun. (Apologies to any readers who are UNC fans. I can understand the game probably wasn’t very fun for all of you.)

DJ Burns and DJ Horne both had a stellar performance in the title game. Burns even made the first three-pointer of his career, after a last-second pass from Jayden Taylor before the shot-clock ran out. Casey Morsell powered through cramps and an injury, doing especially well on defense. Diarra grabbed a ton of rebounds – so many, in fact, that he broke a record for most rebounds during the whole ACC tournament (60 in the five games played). Even Ernest Ross, who stays mostly on the bench, had a few minutes of playing time and got to score one basket.

Burns was named the tournament MVP, the first time an NC State player has received that honor since Vinny Del Negro in 1987.

If nothing else, the team definitely played their hearts out.

Another strange stat about NC State’s five-game run to securing the championship: the team has won more games in that arena now than the Washington Wizards have won all season. (They only had four wins… and 26 losses on their home court so far. The Wizards currently have the worst record in the NBA this season.)

But more importantly than the stats, it was the experience that I really enjoyed. I’ve been an NC State fan my whole life – and I do mean, my WHOLE life. My parents were dressing me in red and white cheerleading gear since infancy. My dad, who is a former NC State cheerleader, used to take me with him when he went to say hi to his old cheerleading coach at basketball games. (I just barely remember those visits.)

I didn’t attend NC State like my brother, my dad, my uncle, or my granddad, but they’ve always been the team I support. So I’ve been waiting a long time (seriously, my entire life) to see the men’s team win a tournament championship. It wasn’t the NCAA, but that doesn’t really matter to me personally. I’m always more invested in games facing ACC teams that I keep up with all year long.

So up next is the NCAA tournament. By the time this column is in print, NC State will have already played their first game. But no matter the outcome, it can’t erase the fun of the ACC tourney run. I’ll remember watching that final championship game for a long time to come.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.