The Cinderella Story Keeps Rolling: Checking In on the Wolfpack’s NCAA Tournament Journey So Far

If anyone had told NC State fans two weeks ago that the Wolfpack would be gearing up for a Sweet 16 game this Friday, they would’ve never believed it. Fast-forward to today, and the only thing standing between NC State and the Elite 8 is Marquette.

After an ACC tournament run for the ages, everyone counted the Wolfpack out of the NCAA tournament. After winning five games in five days, the team would surely be out of magic, right?

Fortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth, as the Wolfpack look hungrier than ever and are the last Cinderella team still dancing in March. Let’s take a deep dive into their previous two games that led them to the Sweet 16.

In a round-of-64 matchup against Texas Tech, NC State was once again underdogs. With a Texas Tech team that prided itself on its defensive physicality and wearing teams down, a matchup against a fatigued NC State team seemed perfect.

However, it quickly became apparent that NC State wouldn’t bow down to anyone. From the jump, the Wolfpack looked energized and hungry to continue their season and shocking the world. Once again, the familiar faces of DJ Burns, Mohamed Diarra, and DJ Horne led the force, all scoring 15+ points and keeping the game close.

In the last two weeks, NC State has preached the moniker of needing to find unconventional ways to win. While their talent might not always match up to opponents, having under-the-radar players step up when it matters has been the catalyst to success.

In this game, Ben Middlebrooks took the reins. His career-high 21 points, paired with his aggressive defensive presence, helped the Wolfpack to a convincing 80-67 win. At this point, the Wolfpack are all too familiar with not celebrating too hard after a big win, as once again, another game was just on the horizon.

As things happened in March, the Wolfpack were geared up for an unlikely opponent in the round of 32. Rather than facing the juggernaut of the Kentucky Wildcats, their opponent would be the Oakland Golden Grizzlies.

With star player Jack Gohlke leading the charge with 10 three-pointers and 32 points in Oakland’s win against Kentucky, the Wolfpack knew this 14-seed wouldn’t go down without a fight. While on paper, the Wolfpack were in the unfamiliar territory of being the “favorites,” as college fans have grown to see, that means absolutely nothing at this time of year.

In Saturday’s game, it was crystal clear that both the Golden Grizzlies and Wolfpack were desperate to punch their ticket to the Sweet 16. Despite DJ Burns having his way all game, with 24 points and 11 rebounds, this game couldn’t be decided in regulation. With the score knotted up at 66, the game headed to overtime with everything on the line. For both teams, 5 minutes stood between them and a Cinderella run to the Sweet 16.

In overtime, momentum is everything. With such a short period of time, it’s often that the first team to score pushes to a quick lead that’s ultimately insurmountable. For the Wolfpack, that’s exactly how this game shook out.

After a monster put-back by DJ Burns, the Wolfpack went on a quick 9-0 run in OT and ultimately sealed the deal with a 79-73 victory. Quickly, celebration ensued as the players joyfully celebrated the win and the realization that they finally had some time to rest.

After seven wins in 12 days, no team has earned its path to the Sweet 16 in the fashion of NC State, and no team needs the rest quite like the Pack. While the team realizes they are in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime run, they all recognize that the job is not finished.

Now, the Wolfpack have a matchup against the Marquette Golden Eagles. Led by Tyler Kolek and Kam Jones, this Marquette team is dangerous on both sides of the ball.

What to Watch For:

In this matchup, a key matchup will be between Kolek and NCSU forward Casey Morsell. Morsell has been an unsung hero through the Wolfpack’s run thus far, but has been a massive asset to the team on the defensive side of the ball. Having a player like Morsell guard the opposing team’s best player and make life miserable for them has allowed players like DJ Horne and Jayden Taylor to conserve their energy for putting the ball in the basket.

Kolek, one of the best players in the country, will be no small task for Morsell. But for the Wolfpack to continue their run, Morsell will have to be effective in slowing Kolek down and making Marquette one-dimensional.

Another key matchup will be amongst the big men, as DJ Burns and Mohamed Diarra will have to remain stars against Marquette’s Oso Ighodaro. Standing at 6-11 but surprisingly versatile and agile, Ighodaro has found ways to impact games, specifically on defense, for the Golden Eagles.

In order to win, Burns will have to remain effective in the post and utilize his incredible passing ability like he has in the last seven games. Burns has been able to assert his dominance against some of the nation’s best before, but it will be absolutely necessary to keep State in contention in this matchup.

Once again, Diarra is the X-factor in this matchup. Averaging 14 points and 12.5 rebounds through the tournament thus far, he will be key to the Wolfpack’s success. Diarra’s ability to corral rebounds not only prevents second opportunities for the opponent but also allows the Wolfpack to get out in transition and get easy buckets. While Marquette’s length poses a threat, Diarra has to continue battling down low and have another big game.

NC State isn’t supposed to be here, and everyone knows that. But if the last 12 days have taught college basketball fans anything, it’s that betting against the Pack is a bad idea. Look for the Wolfpack to continue shocking the world and keep dancing after their matchup with Marquette on Friday night.

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