NC State’s improbable ACC tournament run: How DJ Burns Jr., belief lifted Wolfpack

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — With 47 seconds left in the most improbable run in ACC tournament history, DJ Burns Jr. stood up from his folding chair on NC State’s sideline, turned to the rabid red-clothed crowd behind him, extended his pointer finger and mouthed three words over and over again:

I told you.

The center pointed directly at his parents, Dwight Sr. and Takela, through a sightline to their second-row Capital One Arena seats. Dwight Sr. beamed behind his thick-rimmed black glasses, underneath an NC State hat with “BURNS JR.” woven on the side. And Takela? She ran a single hot pink fingernail down the length of her right cheek. An imaginary tear.

“Before they came up here,” Dwight Sr. told The Athletic, “he said, ‘Daddy, we’re going up there, it’s not over. We together, Coach got us believing — and we’re going up there to win.’”

Not one game.

Five — in the span of five days.

The only high-major team to ever do that in its conference tournament? Connecticut in 2011, when “Cardiac” Kemba Walker famously caught fire.

But those Huskies, even as the No. 9 seed in the Big East, were nationally ranked. They started the season 10-0 and won the Maui Invitational. They were underdogs, sure, but to a lesser extent.

They were not, for example, a No. 10 seed entering its conference tournament having lost seven of nine. And factor in this: No double-digit seed had ever won a high-major conference tournament.

Until Saturday night, that is.

NC State made history defeating top-seeded North Carolina 84-76 in the ACC championship game, claiming its first ACC tournament title since 1987, long before any of its current players were born. Jim Valvano was still the coach, for crying out loud.

“We’ve been getting crushed — when I say we, NC State — by not delivering any championship in 37 years,” coach Kevin Keatts said. “Well, they can’t say that now, because we got one tonight.”

Consider all the ridiculous other tentacles to this miracle run. The Wolfpack beat the conference’s No. 1, 2, and 3 seeds in consecutive days. The five teams they defeated this week? They’re the other programs in the conference to have won national titles: Louisville, Syracuse, Duke, Virginia, and UNC. And by toppling the hated Tar Heels — “Go to hell, Carolina!” is even in the Wolfpack’s fight song — the program earned its first win over a top-four national team since January 2018.

“It was destiny,” Takela said. “It’s supposed to be this way.”

It’s one thing to say that after the fact, when cheerleaders are doing snow angels in red-and-white confetti flakes. But NC State believed it all along, specifically, Keatts, in his seventh season. Before his team flew to D.C., Keatts told them all to pack something lucky — but also, to pack for a week.

“I even brought an extra pair of underwear,” assistant coach Larry Dixon said, “in case we had to stay.”

Needless to say, that was not the consensus. Midway through NC State’s first win, over Louisville, former Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim — who was calling the game — even chastised junior forward Ernest Ross for celebrating a teammate’s 3-pointer: “I don’t know why anybody that’s got the recent history of these guys is celebrating.” (Note: Boeheim’s former program has never made it to Friday of the ACC tournament.)

And though that was an extreme expression, it wasn’t an unpopular opinion — even entering Saturday, after the Wolfpack had downed Duke and Virginia.

“We were, like, 10-point underdogs today,” said senior guard Casey Morsell. “But we love that. We love that feeling.”

And it was obvious in the way the Wolfpack shunned conventional wisdom. Common sense says that playing five games in five days, even for a bunch of 20-somethings, should make them tired. It was the opposite for NC State, though, which seemingly grew more energized the longer it survived.

Take junior forward Mohamed Diarra, who has been observing Ramadan all week as a practicing Muslim — and therefore unable to eat from sunup to sundown. NC State’s tipoff times, suddenly, became of particular importance. The 4:30 p.m. start on Tuesday meant the 6-foot-9 Diarra couldn’t eat at all. On Wednesday and Thursday, NC State’s training staff waited until the very second it was officially sundown and had Keatts promptly sub Diarra out to have something small — an energy gel, a piece of banana, a granola bar — and then a cup of water. Friday and Saturday’s later tipoffs turned out to be a blessing; Diarra could fuel up with his customary pregame pasta with chicken and white sauce.

He had 60 rebounds this week, including a game-high 14 versus UNC. That set an ACC tournament record, passing Tim Duncan, who had 56 in 1996.

“I can eat now,” Diarra joked, “so I’m good.” And then he set off for some strawberry ice cream.

That postgame treat is an NC State staple, or has been at least since Keatts became head coach. The Wolfpack dig into some frozen dairy after almost every victory. When Keatts arrived in Raleigh in 2018, after back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths at UNC-Wilmington, it was a fun bit — a young coach giving his fan base and players something to cherish.

But increasingly over the years, fewer and fewer NC State fans wanted to hear about ice cream. Instead, they wanted to talk about all the highly touted recruits who Keatts signed … who never played a minute in Raleigh: Jalen Lecque, Josh Hall, even current Kentucky star Rob Dillingham, a North Carolina native. Those “none and done” recruits, coupled with Keatts’ inability to consistently beat rival UNC, wore on a fan base desperate to reach the peaks of its past. It did not help that Keatts had as many NCAA Tournament appearances in six years in Raleigh (two) as he did in his final two at Wilmington — and notably, he has never won a game in the Big Dance as a head coach.

Combine that with NC State’s late-season skid, and entering this week, there were concerns about Keatts’ job security if the Wolfpack face-planted in D.C.

Instead, by winning the ACC tournament, Keatts gets an automatic two-year extension, a $400,000 raise and a $100,000 bonus.

But for beating NC State’s most-loathed Tobacco Road rival? For delivering the program’s first championship in almost four decades, after four previous losses in the title game? It’d be hard to blame fans for wanting to extend him for life.

“What they gonna say now?” junior guard Jayden Taylor said. He was wearing ski goggles — which made sense, considering the plastic tarps draped over both walls of lockers, the countless empty glass water bottles scattered around the room and the fact that every championship T-shirt was completely soaked. Taylor smirked and let out an old Wolfpack saying, one fans created specifically for some of Keatts’ big victories early in his tenure: “Kevin Keatts, he is a winner.”

No player embodied that more than the 6-9 Burns, who is listed — an important distinction — at 275 pounds. Burns redshirted at Tennessee as a freshman before transferring closer to home, to Winthrop, where he became the Big South Player of the Year and led the Eagles to the 2021 NCAA Tournament. The past two seasons at NC State, he has had moments of brilliance and moments of frustration.

Burns is a sensational passer with a guard’s touch — he tied his career-high with seven assists against UNC, routinely shredding the Tar Heels’ soft double-teams and traps. That skill was critical in Friday’s overtime win over Virginia, especially, when Burns’ teammates would find him in the post and then get out of dodge. He scored seven of his team-high 19 in extra time, the Cavaliers unable to contend with his spin moves and deft finishing.

But Burns has been frustrating, too, averaging only 24.3 minutes this season, needing frequent breaks due to his conditioning. And though he’s “unstoppable” once he gets going, to steal Morsell’s description, he had eight games this season with either zero or single-digit points — including three of NC State’s last four in the regular season.

“People try to hate on him,” Morsell said. “If you hate DJ, I don’t know. Something’s wrong with you.”

So, naturally, playing five games in five days, the big man averaged 15.2 points while shooting 62.7 percent and was named MVP, the program’s first since Vinny Del Negro in ’87. He saved his best for last, too, dropping his second 20-point game of the season on Saturday — most coming over the Tar Heels’ All-ACC center, Armando Bacot.

“I will say, my legs hurt right now,” Burns said, flashing his trademark toothy grin. “It’s been five days.”

Burns offered an early sign that NC State may have magic brewing, when he made his first career 3-pointer about three minutes before halftime. He’d been 0-of-10.

But he wasn’t alone. DJ Horne — a Raleigh native and the team’s leading scorer — made the first basket of the game, a normal jump shot that bounced straight up off the rim before falling down through the net. He finished with a team-best 29 points, outdueling ACC Player of the Year RJ Davis. When he finally collapsed into his locker, the 919 tattoo for Raleigh’s area code visible on his right arm, Horne repeated the line NC State has all week: “Why not us?”

Keatts chanted the same on the postgame dais before he cut down the net and swirled it sideways atop a ladder. A select few fans even made T-shirts bearing that motto for Saturday.

And that message, written in block red lettering against white cotton, sums up this week as well as anything.

How this unlikely NC State team finally, finally, marked a new milestone, one for its current generation of fans. A source of pride that isn’t 37 years old.

Horne grew up in the Triangle, not far from campus. He’s seen those former champions from 1987 walking around and dreamed of being one.

Now he is. This whole team is.

“If we could make any of those guys proud — and hopefully they are — by what we did here in the ACC, that’s a great thing,” Keatts said. “It’s a great story. It’ll be a great story for a long time.”

 (Photo of DJ Burns Jr.: Greg Fiume / Getty Images)

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