NC State’s March to Madness: The Unlikely Path to an NCAA Tournament Bid by

Everyone knows that every year, when March comes around, Madness ensues. While many believe that the aforementioned “Madness” only happens in the March Madness tournament, this year proved that belief couldn’t be further from the truth.

This past week, all eyes were on conference tournaments as teams vied to defy the odds and claim their spot in the NCAA tournament. Since winning a conference tournament rewards a team with an automatic entry, anything can happen.

For NC State, this season was full of disappointments and underwhelming play. Despite the talented roster, the team couldn’t seem to gel and find their groove. However, as it happens in March, they hit their stride at the right time, and well, the rest is history.

Heading into the ACC tournament as a 10-seed, no one had real hope for the Wolfpack. While some thought they might be able to rattle off a win or two, no one presumed they’d have any chance of overtaking the powerhouses of Virginia, Duke, and UNC. It’s hard enough to beat these schools in a regular season game, let alone when having to play consecutive nightswith no breaks in between games. If not for the lack of talent or skill, surely the fatigue will get to the team, right?

Wrong; absolutely wrong. It all started in a matchup against a 15-seed Louisville Cardinal team on Tuesday. A convincing 94-85 victory provided a tiny spark of hope. While this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, it was great to see the Wolfpack win at least one game in the ACC tournament.

Wednesday night brought another battle: the Syracuse Orange. The matchup against a 7-seed would be tough but still in the realm of possibility. The two teams split their regular season games 1-1 in two very close games. In a game where State saw four players score in double figures, the Wolfpack cruised to an 83-65 win. Still… a heartbeat.

Next up: Duke. Duke’s basketball presence goes without saying. After playing the previous two nights, a battle against the 2-seed seemed like an inevitable end to the season. After dropping both games against the Blue Devils in the regular season, with neither game being particularly close, the end was in sight. Still, the Wolfpack weren’t ready to call it quits just yet.

In an ultra-competitive, scrappy game, led by DJ Horne with 18 pts and 4 rebounds, along with Mohamed Diarra’s 14 pts and 16 rebounds, the Wolfpack somehow prevailed. An underdog story that, in many ways, defines what NC State basketball is all about. No one gave the Wolfpack a chance… and that’s precisely how they like it.

But with no time for celebration, State’s focus immediately shifted to UVA, a team fighting for their chance at an at-large bid and as hungry as any team in the nation. Although putting up a great battle, State found themselves behind by three points, as Casey Morsell’s attempt to tie the game came up short with just over 5 seconds remaining. With UVA shooting a 1 and 1 while up three points, all it took was one free throw to seal the win. A miracle was needed, even with a missed foul shot. For the first time, it felt like NC State’s pursuit of a Cinderella story was over. However, that’s the thing about March. Every fan knows it – it’s not over until it’s over. As UVA’s front end of the 1 and 1 clinks off the backboard, Morsell grabs the rebound and shovels it ahead to Michael O’Connell. The clock quickly dwindles as O’Connell runs up the left side of the court, searching for space to throw up a last-second heave. 3, 2, 1, the shot goes up. A fadeaway three from the left wing. And in the famous words of Mike Breen: “BANG!!!!”

A miracle. The shot banks in and ties the game. This is Madness. However, 5 minutes of overtime still loomed. But with all of the momentum in the world on their side, the Wolfpack took care of business for the fourth straight night and won the game 73-65. The ultimate feeling of accomplishment and pride for NC State was quickly interrupted by reality as the Tar Heels loomed the following night. 5 games. 5 days. The fairytale story had one chapter left. Could the Wolfpack silence the outside noise and lock in for a battle against one of the nation’s best? Everything was on the line. The game would either be State’s last or result in an NCAA tournament bid. The ultimate win-or-go-home game.
Coming in as double-digit underdogs, the world thought State used up all of its magic against Duke and UVA. However, the Wolfpack had different ideas in mind. In a physical game with several scuffles and mix-ups amongst teams, it was evident how much this game meant to both sides. Cutting down the nets in DC was the goal for both teams, and an incredible basketball game was underway.

After coming out red hot from the field, NC State’s early double-digit lead was quickly depleted towards the end of the first half, and a Cormac Ryan three-pointer at the buzzer led UNC into the tunnel with a one-point lead. The momentum ran with the Tar Heels, but every fan and spectator knew this game would be close down the stretch.

The Wolfpack needed a spark, and leading scorer DJ Horne battling foul trouble was a huge hindrance on the offense. Kevin Keatts stated pre-game that the team would need to be unconventional in their approach to beating UNC, and his decision to play Horne with 4 fouls with 10 minutes left was just that. While risky, Horne stayed disciplined on the defensive end and led the Wolfpack on the offensive end.

Down the stretch, State’s best players rose to the occasion once again. Horne’s 29 points, paired with DJ Burns’ 20 and Diarra’s 14 rebounds, led the team to the ultimate victory. UNC fans and the world were left in absolute shell shock. A once-in-a-lifetime underdog story came to its head as the team cut down the nets, as red and white confetti fell across the stadium. It’s official: the Wolfpack are dancing.

Through all the ups and downs, the Wolfpack are gearing up for a battle against the Texas Tech Red Raiders this upcoming Thursday. As an 11 seed, the Wolfpack are again painted as underdogs in the NCAA tournament. But now, with some much-needed rest since last Saturday, the Wolfpack will look to continue their journey of shocking the world and find themselves playing again over the weekend.

If the last week has taught the Wolfpack anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. As NC State gears up for their battle this Thursday, look for the team to continue playing under the mantra that brought them to this point: “Why Not Us?”.

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