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Spring-breaking for a Championship

The NC State men’s basketball team won its 11th Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship in Washington, D.C., by winning a remarkable five games in a row for its first title since 1987. It was music to everyone’s ears.

NC State's men's basketball team earns its ACC Championship trophy on stage after the game

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As he was escorted off the court into the back hallways of the Capital One Arena for postgame interviews, NC State graduate student DJ Burns Jr. stopped and turned around.

He wasn’t about to end the best night of his basketball life without one more photo to celebrate the program’s 11th Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

“Hold up,” said the hulking, 6-foot-9-inch center from Rock Hill, South Carolina, who had just been handed the Everett Case Award as the tournament’s most valuable player. “I gotta take this picture.”

Burns, who scored 20 points in the Wolfpack’s 84-76 victory over top-seeded and fourth-ranked North Carolina on Saturday, then walked over to the red-striped legion of NC State students who make up the Wolfpack pep band for one last joyous photo on the court.

The mammoth player with funky dance moves and a playful sense of humor wasn’t about to miss the chance to hang out one more time with the classmates who greet his every big play, for whatever reason, by screaming “ma-ca-RON-i.”

DJ Burns Jr. and members of the NC State pep band pose for a group photo on the court after the championship win
DJ Burns Jr. celebrates with members of the NC State pep band after the game

After all, the 29 pep band members, 12 cheerleaders and mascot Mr. Wuf had also spent their entire spring break performing at the basketball team’s unprecedented five tournament wins, and they have been among the team’s biggest supporters all season.

Head coach Kevin Keatts and his team pulled off the miraculous feat of winning back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back tournament games for just the second time in major college basketball history — first accomplished by Connecticut in 2011 but never by an ACC team.

It earned NC State the ACC’s automatic berth in the NCAA Championship, which begins Thursday. The Wolfpack will play Texas Tech in Pittsburgh in its opening round game Thursday afternoon. Also this weekend, the Wolfpack Women will host the first two rounds of play in the NCAA Women’s tournament at Reynolds Coliseum.

With a team that has more spectacular DJs than a Hollywood house party, the Wolfpack men muscled to the championship with a variety of strategies and a host of players who stepped up to perform. Graduate guard DJ Horne, who didn’t play in the opening round game on Tuesday because of injury, twice led the team in scoring.

The honors were shared equally. Four different players led the Pack in scoring: graduate Casey Morsell (25 vs. Louisville), junior Jayden Taylor (18 vs. Syracuse), Horne (18 vs. Duke, 29 vs. North Carolina) and Burns (19 vs. Virginia).

Despite concerns over fatigue, the championship game was really never close. The Wolfpack jumped out to a 14-4 lead in the first five minutes and never trailed in the first 10. The Tar Heels grabbed a lead late in the first half behind the shooting of RJ Davis, but State took the lead at the beginning of the second half and never trailed in the game’s final 19 minutes. As the clock wound down — and celebrants in Washington, Raleigh and half the state of North Carolina prepared to uncork 37-year-old champagne — the Pack extended its lead to as many as 12 points.

North Carolina missed 12 of its last 13 shots.

Casey Morsell and coach Kevin Keatts embrace following their win
Casey Morsell and coach Kevin Keatts embrace following the win

Despite a few leg cramps, Horne’s earlier injury and the aches, pains and tiredness of five consecutive games, the Wolfpack played loose and had fun all the way through to their traditional celebratory scoops of ice cream, something Keatts started when he arrived seven years ago after road victories.

The path was not easy. Including State, six current members of the Atlantic Coast Conference have won NCAA men’s basketball titles. The Pack beat the other five in succession: Louisville, Syracuse, Duke, Virginia and North Carolina.

“I don’t think everybody understands that we won five games in five days against some very good teams,” Keatts said.

There were multiple story lines that gained attention for NC State, even more than breaking the prolonged championship drought:

  • Horne, after missing the opening game, averaged 18 points in his 32 minutes over four games and helped carry his team over some obstacles, especially in the title game when he had 29 points — the team’s top scoring performance of the week.
  • Graduate student Mo Diarra, a native of France and a transfer from Missouri, spent the entire tournament observing the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. He fasted during the daylight hours, abstaining from food or water. That caused some overtime for the team training staff and team nutritionist, who had to make sure the player was properly fed and hydrated. During the game against Duke, Keatts called a timeout at exactly 7:17 p.m. — the moment of sundown — to allow Diarra to have his first bite of food since before sunrise. Diarra played in all five games and broke Tim Duncan’s ACC tournament record by grabbing 60 rebounds in five games.
  • Mike O’Connell, a graduate student who earned a degree in economics from Stanford before using the transfer portal to play his final two years of college basketball, was a constant Wolfpack hero in the lead up to St. Patrick’s Day. Friday night, he sent the semifinal game against Virginia into overtime with an unlikely 3-pointer that banked off the backboard, circled the rim twice and fell through the net as time expired.
DJ Horne and a teammate embrace on the court after the game

And the members of the band? They made good use of an unanticipated full week in the nation’s capital, touring the National Mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol. They visited the Smithsonian sites, including the National Air and Space Museum. Some caught an up-close glimpse of a presidential motorcade.

They saw all the city’s important documents: The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence and, uniquely for most tourists, the ACC Championship brackets in the tunnel of Capital One Arena that were updated after every Wolfpack win.

“Some of our students were a bit superstitious and made sure to eat the same meals every day and perform the same pregame rituals to ensure they didn’t break the good karma we had going,” said director of bands Paul Garcia.

Mostly, though, like the team they were supporting, they played their hearts out.

This post was originally published in NC State News.