A joyous shout went up from the NC State basketball team Sunday as its saw the Wolfpack’s name flash onto the TV screen as one of the 68 teams selected to play in this year’s NCAA tournament.
Of all the excited players in the room, it’s doubtful anyone enjoyed the moment more than Sam Hunt.
Only a year earlier, the sharpshooting guard was contemplating his basketball future after playing on an NC A&T team that lost 22 straight games at one point and finished with just three wins in 32 games all season.
Now he’s a contributing member of a team getting ready to play in the NCAA tournament.
Hunt likes to say that he’s living the dream. But truth be told, he could never have imagined this much good fortune when he decided to join the Wolfpack as a graduate transfer for his final season of college eligibility.
“I never gave up. I kept dreaming about it. Now it’s here,” said Hunt before he and his teammate boarded a plane for Wichita, Kan., where they’ll play Seton Hall on Thursday in the opening round of the NCAA’s Midwest Region. “I’m real blessed with the opportunity. I’m fortunate enough to be here with this team. I’m going to try and take full advantage of it and enjoy each moment.”
Hunt had always envisioned himself playing high profile games for an ACC team ever since he began watching conference games on television as a kid growing up in Greensboro. Those hopes were dashed, or at least put on hold, when he graduated from Dudley High School without any big-time offers.
He ended up going to Jacksonville and after one season, transferred closer to home at NC A&T after one season.
Hunt put up solid numbers with the Aggies, leading the team in scoring at 12.7 points per game in 2016-17. But the individual success didn’t make up for the losing, so with a bachelor’s degree in business economics already in hand, he decided to cast his lot on the graduate transfer market.
It didn’t matter that he would go from a starter playing 34 minutes per game to a role player coming off the bench. When State coach Kevin Keatts showed an interest in joining the Wolfpack, he jumped at the opportunity.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision at all. I wanted to win,” Hunt said. “I hadn’t won in three years. Knowing I have the chance to win, all the individual things I’ve accomplished, it doesn’t add up to this at all. Just to be here and be able to win and play for an NCAA Championship, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Graduate transfers can be a hit-or-miss proposition, since they’re only in the program for one season and aren’t always around long enough to become as emotionally invested as their new teammates.
Hunt, however, assimilated quickly, earning the respect of his teammates by willingly accepting a secondary role as a 3-point shooting specialist.
“(I’m) super happy for a guy like him,” junior forward Torin Dorn said. “He’s an extremely hard worker. Anytime a guy like that gets a chance to show what he can do on the biggest stage, and gets a chance to play on this stage, it’s a thing of beauty.”
Although Hunt is only averaging 5.7 points in a little over 16 minutes per game, his contribution to the Wolfpack’s surprising NCAA tournament run has been meaningful.
Over his last seven games, starting with a win at Syracuse on Valentine’s Day, Hunt has hit on 21 of his 29 3-point attempts and has scored in double figures four times. He’s become so reliable with his signature jumper from the deep corner that it’s become almost as automatic as a layup.
He could potentially be the x-factor that puts State over the top in a toss-up opening round NCAA tournament game. But no matter how things go against Seton Hall, he’s already won.
That’s how it goes when you’re living the dream.
“It means everything to him,” Keatts said of the chance to play for the Wolfpack in a game of this magnitude. “Being a kid born in the state of North Carolina, growing up as an ACC guy, having a chance to play for an ACC school in the NCAA Tournament at NC State, I know he’s excited. I hope he’s excited where he’ll come out and make at least six 3’s in the game.”