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N.C. State goes from bid stealer to the Final Four

The N.C. State Wolfpack lost in rather quiet fashion at Pittsburgh in their regular-season finale on March 9.

N.C. State finished the season with a 17-14 record–including a less-than-impressive 9-11 mark in the ACC. The Wolfpack entered the conference tournament as the 10th seed and an afterthought regarding NCAA Tournament resumes. They were likely hoping to win a game or two in DC and then decide if they were going to accept a bid to the NIT.

But the Wolfpack defeated Louisville in Round 1 and just kept on winning until they won five straight games to claim the ACC postseason crown and an automatic bid to the 68-team NCAA Tournament. Included in those victories were wins over Duke, Virginia and North Carolina–all tournament teams.

However, despite winning its postseason conference championship, N.C. State, who received an 11 seed in the South Region, was still an afterthought when it came to handicapping who would win it all or even make it to the Final Four. Sure, the Wolfpack were discussed in the days leading up to the tournament, but they were seen as one of those many bid stealers who prevented more deserving teams from going dancing–including the Panthers, a fellow ACC squad who had swept N.C. State in the regular season and finished six spots higher in the conference standings.

Ironically enough, N.C. State began its tournament journey at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.

The Wolfpack had little trouble with sixth-seeded Texas Tech in Round 1 but barely survived 14th-seeded Oakland two days later, winning in overtime. Perhaps, luck played a part in the Pack making it to the Sweet 16. After all, Oakland knocked off third-seeded Kentucky in the first round. How would N.C. State have fared against the blue-blood Wildcats in the second round?

I’m guessing things would have gone well.

It’s almost as if Oakland threw the Wolfpack a curveball by knocking off a Goliath in the first round. If you review the ACC Tournament, N.C. State whipped up on everyone–including Duke and North Carolina–and only really struggled to defeat Virginia in overtime. Virginia was a school that had been floundering down the stretch of the regular season and one that many felt did not belong in the field of 68 despite finishing third in the ACC.

After surviving Oakland, N.C. State flew down to American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, to take on second-seeded Marquette on Friday night. What happened? You guessed it, the Wolfpack won in a rather comfortable fashion by a score of 67-58.

Surely, N.C. State would finally run out of steam in the South Regional Final against fourth-seeded Duke, the fellow ACC team with bluer blood that was looking for its 18th Final Four appearance. No way would the Blue Devils, who had just dispatched top-seeded Houston two nights earlier, allow this opportunity to pass them by.

The Wolfpack weren’t fazed one bit. OK, maybe they were in the first half when they could barely buy a basket and scored just 21 points. Fortunately for them, Duke wasn’t shooting much better and went into the locker room only leading by six points.

But it was all N.C. State in the second half.

Led by D.J. Burns, the 6’9″, 275-pound senior forward who tallied 29 points, the Wolfpack outscored Duke, 55-37, over the final 20 minutes to win going away, 76-64.

The Wolfpack have now gone from bid stealer to the Final Four. They will join Purdue (a number-one seed), Connecticut (a number-one seed) and Alabama (a number-four seed) as the four teams left standing in the quest to win the 2023/2024 men’s college basketball national championship.

It’s N.C. State’s first trip to the Final Four since 1983; it was also the last time the program won a national title (The scene of the late Jimmy Valvano running around in disbelief after the buzzer-beating dunk that beat Houston is now iconic.)

I’m not sure how the Wolfpack will do in the Final Four, but I do know this: They earned their way there, and they belong.


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