Red letter day: NCSU makes Final 4

North Carolina State’s DJ Burns Jr. (30) dumps confetti on head coach Kevin Keatts following an Elite Eight college basketball game against Duke in the NCAA Tournament in Dallas, Sunday, March 31, 2024. North Carolina State won 76-64. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

There was Spud Webb, and Staats Battle and Cat Barber and Scooter Sherrill.

Welcome back.

And Rodney Purvis and Chris Washburn and Dennis Smith.

It’s been awhile.

NC State has played 1,231 basketball games over the last 41 years. Including overtimes, that’s 49,630 minutes of basketball. Over what would be 34 and a half days of end-to-end nonstop basketball, 233 men have suited up for the Wolfpack.

And Tom Gugliotta and Charles Shackleford and Todd Fuller and Chucky Brown.

On Sunday night, 16 of them did what their 217 predecessors in the red and white did not—they cut down the nets to signify a spot in college basketball’s Final Four.

And Migjen Bakalli and Omer Yurtseven and Lakista McCuller.

The Wolfpack did it by playing nine must-win games over 19 days, the most recent one a 76-64 win over Duke that sent State to the final weekend of the college basketball season. Land that only four teams get the tread.

“Nine elimination games or you go home,” said Coach Kevin Keatts, who, for nearly half of those nine games had more at risk than just going home, since there was a good chance the school would be sending him on his way, to find a new home somewhere else.”

Forty one years wandering the Final Four desert—one more than Moses, except the prophet didn’t have two Team Pharaohs a few miles away, celebrating in their respective oases.

Over those 41 years, UNC and Duke combined to go to 25 Final Fours, or a little better than a trip every other year.

Amazingly, 115 different Blue Devils and 130 different Tar Heels have played on Final Four teams over that time span. That’s 245 strands clipped off of nets in arenas around the country, while 233 Wolfpack players wandered, watched and waited, red faced and green with envy, while the blue bloods celebrated.

There was Chris Corchiani, and Braxton Beverly and Richard Howell.

Then came the 19 days that will live forever. State beat them all—Louisville, who won titles in years three and 30 of State’s drought), Syracuse, who won in year 20, Virginia, who won in year 36, and, of course, Duke and Carolina. Those five wins gave Keatts a second life on the Wolfpack bench and State an unexpected trip to what quickly has become the maddest March in … well … in 41 years.

And Damien Wilkins and Ishua Benjamin and Cozell McQueen.

After winning three tournament games, State had to defeat Duke in a rematch to make it to the Final Four.

The Blue Devils were favored, but the Wolfpack were not to be denied. They faced adversity—Mohamed Diarra, who had four straight double-doubles, got in early foul trouble and managed just three points. A quick-trigger technical foul was called on Keatts, allowing Duke to put together a second half rally.

And D.J. Funderburk and BeeJay Anya and C.J. Leslie and J.J. Hickson.  

D.J. Burns dominated in the post, shredding Duke’s interior defense as they tried to play him straight up.

Burns had 29 points on 13-of-19 shooting on his way to the Regional Most Outstanding Player award. He also had 4 rebounds and 3 assists while fouling out Kyle Filipowski and Mark Mitchell.

“I’m not sure what the game plan was,” said Ben Middlebrooks. “I’m not sure what they were doing there, but if you’re going to guard single in the post, I don’t see too many teams guarding us like that.”

Middlebrooks added 7 points and 5 rebounds.

D.J. Horne added 20 points and joined Burns on the All-Regional team.

And Manny Bates and Cliff Crawford and Cedric Simmons and Anthony Grundy.  

The Pack also clamped down on defense, holding Duke to .333 shooting, including an 0-for-9 night by Tyrese Proctor. It was the second straight game that State guards held opponents with visions of the NBA in check. The Wolfpack had a similar shutdown performance on Marquette two days earlier.

Now the Pack heads to Phoenix for the Final Four. They have more losses—14—than any other team that’s ever made it there, and the Pack will face the highest remaining seed in the field in No. 1 Purdue.

And Rodney Monroe and Julius Hodge and T.J. Warren.  

But the prospect of that is the subject for another night. On Sunday, the focus was on coming out of the desert, sipping the milk, and tasting the honey.

“Iʼm still trying to put everything into words,” said Casey Morsell. “Itʼs been a crazy season, itʼs been a roller coaster, been a lot of ups and downs, and man, we got it going at the right time. We stayed connected through the good and the bad. That was just a display of hard work, a display of beating the odds. Man, I love this team, I love this group, and Iʼve always loved them, through the losses and not just the wins. Weʼre going to keep this thing going. This is for Raleigh.”

It’s also for the 217 that came before them.