DJ Burns and NC State survive Cinderella slugfest — improbable March continues

PITTSBURGH — When the latest heroics were over, after DJ Burns salted away an unthinkable seventh postseason victory in 12 days, burnishing his and NC State’s growing legend, the Wolfpack’s nimble giant suffered the first ungraceful moment of his night. He bounded off the court at PPG Paints Arena, screaming and clapping all the way, skipping into the tunnel, reaching up to high-five fans hanging over the railings and yelping, “DJ, you’re my favorite!” He never saw the much smaller photographer in his path. He tripped and nearly face-planted on the concrete, all 6 feet 9, 300-ish pounds of him.

Like NC State’s season, though, he saved it. Got both hands out in front, bear-crawled until he could regain his footing, and the skipping and screaming resumed. His coach, Kevin Keatts, yelled after him: “DJ! How sweet it is, baby!” The 11th-seeded Pack had just survived a Cinderella slugfest in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, outlasting 14th-seeded Oakland, another team that wasn’t supposed to be here, in a 79-73 overtime thriller. NC State is into the Sweet 16 for the first time in almost a decade.

“This s— feels good, Coach!” Burns howled as he hopped toward the locker room. “This s— feels good!”

It’s hard to believe he or his teammates could feel anything after the grueling, two-week test of fitness and fortitude they just experienced.

On March 11, the Wolfpack were 17-14 overall, having lost four straight to end the regular season and, with a 9-11 mark in the ACC, had zero shot at earning an NCAA at-large bid. They’d have to win five games in as many days at the conference tournament in Washington, D.C. Preposterous. Except they did it, topping Louisville, Syracuse, Duke, Virginia and North Carolina all in a row. Burns was officially MVP of that tournament, but the real MVPs were the support staffers who somehow kept the players upright and functional for that trip, and this one.

“Miracle workers,” Wolfpack assistant Joel Justus said. “The guys said every day, ‘I feel better today than yesterday.’ I stole this line from a former boss of mine: Sometimes it’s about what you tell yourself versus what you’re listening to everybody else say. Our guys just kept telling themselves, ‘We’re good.’”

They’ve been more than good. What NC State has done for the last dozen days can only be described as an out-of-body experience. Especially for junior forward Mohamed Diarra, who has been observing Ramadan as a practicing Muslim since the ACC Tournament began. That means he can’t eat or drink from sunrise to sundown. With night games, he usually gets to break his fast at some point in the first half, usually with a banana and carbohydrate drink.

Diarra had 11 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks and two assists Saturday night against Oakland.

“It’s been very, very challenging because we’re all very, very tired,” Diarra said. “But we don’t make excuses because we needed to show everybody who we are. We can’t say, ‘Oh, I’m tired.’ If we don’t go play with everything we have, we’re going to be resting for the rest of the month — for the next five months. No, we can’t make excuses. None.”

In that same spirit, Burns, whose listed weight is 275 pounds but actual weight is well north of 300, somehow gave the Wolfpack 42 minutes, scored 24 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and dished out four assists against Oakland. He still looked fresh in overtime, after the Golden Grizzlies and their two stars, Trey Townsend and Jack Gohlke, erased a game-long lead in the final three minutes of regulation.

“We had two options,” Burns said, “to either lay down and quit or keep on fighting.”

Everyone knows now what NC State will choose in that scenario. So Michael O’Connell nailed a tough driving and-one in the final minute of regulation. And Jayden Taylor came off the bench in overtime, after Diarra and Ben Middlebrooks fouled out, to drill a dagger 3 with 73 seconds left. And Burns polished it off, finally vanquishing the Kentucky killers, surviving 30 and 13 from Townsend and six more made 3s from Gohlke, the latest legend of March Madness.

“It was a boxing match,” Keatts said. “We bent a little, but we never broke. Our character really shined through when we needed it.”

When it was over, Burns was asked what he’d tell the doubters who did not expect — never could’ve imagined in their wildest dreams — the Wolfpack making a run like this.

“Be nice, Burns,” Keatts interjected. The star center’s personality is as big as he is.

“I’m just saying welcome back,” Burns said. “They didn’t really believe in us. They probably still don’t. But that doesn’t matter to us. We’re just going to stay together. If you’re supporting us, thank you. If not, that’s what it is.”

Who and how many now believe in NC State is hard to say, but everyone watching this NCAA Tournament is now fully aware. And no one who loves the Wolfpack will ever forget this run.

“We came from nowhere and we did something special, and now everybody’s going to remember that for the rest of their lives,” Diarra said. “That’s crazy, because two weeks ago, it was tough. Two weeks ago, we were a very forgettable team. Now everybody knows us.”

His Ramadan fast broken again until sunrise, Diarra was headed back to the team hotel for the biggest bowl of chicken alfredo he could get his hands on.

“Then sleep,” he said. “Like a baby.”

(Photo: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

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