NC State’s Cinderella Final Four trip an unbelievable sequel to Jim Valvano’s 1983 national championship run

In the 2013 ESPN 30-for-30 documentary “Survive and Advance,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski describes the legendary 1983 NC State upset against Houston in the national championship game with a question. 

“Could this actually have just happened?” Krzyzewski asks in the documentary. “It was unbelievable. Like, when you’re trying to give the definition of unbelievable you say, ‘State beating Houston.’”

So, how do we describe “State beating Duke” to go to the Final Four in 2024? No. 11 NC State beat No. 4 Duke 76-64 in the South Region final, which continued a modern-day Jim Valvano-like Cinderella story for the present-day generation. Yes, that word still stands.

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It really is unbelievable what has transpired since NC State took the floor in the ACC tournament against Louisville on March 14. The Wolfpack had lost their last four games by an average of 9.5 points per game and seemed at best good for a win or two at Capital One Arena in D.C. 

What if Isaac McKneely makes that 1-and-1 free throw for Virginia in the ACC tournament? Then Michael O’Connell’s game-tying 3-pointer doesn’t happen and NC State’s season ends. 

The Wolfpack continue to defy every analytic or metric through a nine-game winning streak. What is more unbelievable at this point? A five-game, five-day run through the ACC Tournament that included victories against No. 11 Duke and No. 4 North Carolina? Or the corresponding run through the South Region – which included second-weekend victories against No. 2 Marquette and No. 4 Duke. NC State has played 40 games. 

The second half of Sunday’s victory against the Blue Devils encapsulated everything about this Cinderella run. Duke led 27-21 at halftime, and the Wolfpack responded by hitting nine of their first 12 shots of the second half. 

(Getty Images)

DJ Burns leads NC State past Duke 

Who had DJ Burns – a 6-foot-9, 260-pound forward – as an all-tournament team performer before this started? Burns had 29 points, four rebounds and three assists as part of a dominant performance that is quite literally the embodiment of March Madness. Burns redshirted at Tennessee in 2018, played three seasons at Winthrop and transferred to NC State in 2022, and is now piling up NIL deals as March Madness’s latest crush. 

“I’ll say it like I have been saying the whole tournament.” Burns said on the CBS telecast afterward. “When I stop having fun, I’ll stop playing basketball.” 

Who had Kevin Keatts as the best coach of the postseason? He had four tournament appearances between UNC-Wilmington and NC State coming into this year – all of which ended in first-round exits?

MORE: Kevin Keatts piling up the bonuses in March Madness run

It’s going to lead to endless revisitations of that magical 1983 NC State run this week – which was the last time the Wolfpack made the Final Four. No. 6 NC State beat No. 1 Houston 54-52 in a legendary upset at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M. The Cougars were known as “Phi Slama Jama” with a superstar starting lineup that featured future Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. 

It’s the same magical formula. Guard DJ Horne is this team’s Dereck Whittenburg. Casey Morsell and Mohamed Diarra are this team’s Sidney Lowe and Thurl Bailey. When O’Connell swished a 3-pointer with 7:02 remaining for a 51-42 lead against the Blue Devils, it required a double take. Didn’t that look like Terry Gannon? 

NC State joins No. 11 seeds in Final Four 

Of course it did. This is the power of a Final Four run, and now NC State joins that group of No. 11 seeds that have made that run. That includes LSU (1986), George Mason (2006), VCU (2011), Loyola-Chicago (2018) and UCLA (2021). Those teams are a combined 0-5 and lost by an average of 9.8 points per game. The Bruins pushed No. 1 Gonzaga in a 93-90 overtime thriller in the 2021 Final Four, which offers at least the tease that this can be done. 

Why would you bother telling NC State the odds now? Opposing teams are shooting 23.9% (28 of 117) from 3-point range against the Wolfpack in the 2024 NCAA Tournament. NC State is 34.7% (26 of 75) from 3-point range, and it will have to be better for the challenges that come next. 

The 1983 team had to deal with Virginia’s Ralph Sampson before Olajuwon. This year, the Wolfpack have to get through 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey from Purdue just to get a swing at defending national champion UConn, which features 7-foot-2 center Donvan Clingan. 

Nobody is going to give NC State much of a chance in Phoenix, but that’s been the case for the last three weeks. This is a stand-alone Cinderella story, even if it’s the long-awaited sequel to the by-definition “Survive and Advance” tournament run. There is a word for it, of course, one Coach K probably repeated a few times when the Blue Devils lost on Sunday. 

“State beating Duke” to go to the Final Four. 

It really is unbelievable.

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