State’s epic run heads to day five

Wolfpack comeback beats UVA, will play for ACC title on Saturday

North Carolina State guard Michael O'Connell (12) shoots over Virginia guard Isaac McKneely (11) to tie the game 58-58 and sends the game into overtime at the end of the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinal round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament Friday, March 15, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

As improbable as it may seem, NC State will play for the ACC title on Saturday night.

The Wolfpack’s miracle run through the ACC Tournament appeared to be reaching its end with 70 seconds left against UVA in the semifinals on Friday. However, State, who knows a little something about snatching victory from the jaws, mounted a comeback, capped by a game-tying buzzer beater to send the game to overtime.

The extra period was all Pack, or, to be more specific, all DJ Burns, as State knocked off Virginia, 73-65.

That sets up an ACC title game against top seed North Carolina, as the Wolfpack look to cap off an historic run with an ACC title. Already, the Wolfpack are just the third ACC team to win four games in four days, joining 2017 Duke and 2022 Virginia Tech, who both won titles after game four. State has another game to play and would be the second team to win five in five days in any conference tourney, joining 2011 UConn in the Big East.

State is just the second double-digit seed to make the championship game and first since 2007, when the Wolfpack did it as the No. 10 seed. The Pack lost that year to top-seeded UNC and haven’t been back to the title game since. They haven’t cut down the ACC Tournament nets since 1987, four years after Jim Valvano’s “Survive and advance” team won the ACC Tournament and national title.

Head coach Kevin Keatts, thought by some to be on the verge of being fired when State’s season finally ended, instead has conjured up memories of Jimmy V with the Wolfpack’s epic run.

The win over No. 3 seed UVA comes 24 hours after beating No. 2 Duke. A win over the Tar Heels would make State the sixth team in the history of the event to beat all three top seeds. (1976 UVA, 1980 Duke, 2004 Maryland, 2017 Duke and 2022 Virginia Tech are the others.)

With 1:10 left in Friday’s game, none of that seemed possible. State trailed by five points and, in an effort to stop the clock and send UVA to the line, DJ Burns picked up a flagrant foul, which gave Virginia two shots and the ball. However, Reece Beekman, a .766 career free throw shooter, missed both attempts. Virginia would miss four of their final five free throw attempts, including the front end of a one-and-one with four seconds remaining and UVA up three.

That turned out to be a fatal mistake for the Cavaliers. Michael O’Connell rushed down and banked in a three-pointer at the buzzer to tie the game.

“Michael’s shot, man, that’s a great shot,” said Keatts, “and I had a direct view of it. As it went up I was like, man, that shot is going in, it’s going in, and then luckily it did.”

North Carolina State players celebrating after defeating Virginia in overtime of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinal round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament Friday, March 15, 2024, in Washington. North Carolina State won 73-65 to advance to the championship. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Then, in overtime, Burns had the chance to atone for his flagrant foul.

“I told myself, ‘You’ve got two options: you can get in your feelings or you can go win this game,’” he said.

In overtime, Burns scored seven of State’s first eight points, on his way to a team-high 19.

Despite playing their 165th minute of basketball since Tuesday, NC State was at their best down the stretch.

“I thought we were going to pull away,” said UVA’s Isaac McKneely, “but they just kept fighting.”

“All the odds were stacked against us,” Burns said, “but our guys came through.”