North Carolina State's Final Four run ends against Purdue but it was a run to remember and savor

GLENDALE, Ariz. — With a little under seven minutes remaining and the game slowly slipping out of reach, D.J. Burns, Jr., tried one more of those drop-step moves to free himself from the clutches of Zach Edey.

It’s the move that had worked so many times this postseason, the move that brought America along for a joyous ride with North Carolina State across nine consecutive elimination games to reach the Final Four.

And, for once, it worked — sort of. Burns got the step on Edey, reversed under the basket and laid the ball in. But the reason Burns got to the rim so easily was soon revealed by the referee’s whistle: He had traveled.

For Burns and NC State, this NCAA men's tournament was an amazing, historic run that will live forever in program lore.

But against Purdue, it was simply that kind of night.

“We just couldn’t get that momentum that we needed,” guard Casey Morsell said.

Getting beat 63-50 on this ultimate college basketball stage is not the story the Wolfpack will remember, though.

Because NC State, a No. 11 seed that played like giants in March, could have been sent home several times before now.

At 17-14 heading into the ACC tournament, this was a team hanging onto a thin strand of hope.

Against Virginia in the ACC tournament semifinals, it needed a missed free throw and a banked-in three to stay alive.

The Wolfpack needed overtime against Oakland to get to the Sweet 16.

And in the Elite Eight, NC State had to beat a rival from just down the road — Duke and its cadre of blue-chip prospects — to secure the program’s first Final Four appearance in 38 years.

“It’s been fun every step of the way,” guard DJ Horne said. “Every win we’ve gotten, it felt like a championship.”

North Carolina State Wolfpack forward DJ Burns Jr. (30) walks back down court during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Final Four game against the Purdue Boilermakers, Saturday, April 6, 2024, at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
North Carolina State Wolfpack forward DJ Burns Jr. (30) walks back down court during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Final Four game against the Purdue Boilermakers, Saturday, April 6, 2024, at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

But maybe it all finally caught up with NC State. Because the team that had played such good basketball under pressure for more than three weeks finally looked more like the frustrating team it had been for most of this season.

It struggled to make shots, converting just 36.8% and only 5-of-19 threes. It gave up a flurry of offensive rebounds in the first few minutes, allowing Purdue to get out to a 12-4 start that put NC State under stress right away. And then foul trouble, plus a strange hamstring injury when guard Michael O’Connell slipped on the floor, forced coach Kevin Keatts to rely on lineups it hadn't really played with for the entire postseason.

And at the end, NC State finally tired out — something that didn’t seem possible after they played five games in five days at the ACC tournament and still sprung into the NCAAs with fresh legs.

That’s what Purdue can do to you.

“They make you work, not just because of Edey but there’s so much off ball action for the shooters,” Morsell said. “We felt like we were ready but they tested us in a lot of different ways whether it was awareness or rebounding and it just wasn’t there. It wasn’t good enough to win the game.”

Burns, in particular, was out of sorts going up against Edey. The 6-foot-9, 275-pound big man who seemed to have a permanent smile affixed to his face during the tournament, picked up his second foul with 6:29 left in the first half and his third just 92 seconds into the second half.

The one-on-one matchup with Edey never really materialized. In some ways, NC State offered more of a challenge for Edey defensively without him on the floor.

“I didn’t do as good of a job in the first half keeping him getting to that right hand,” Burns said. “He’s a tall guy, if you let him get to his spots, he’s going to make his shots. We cleaned it up, but it was a little too late.”

In the big picture, though, NC State’s surge in March was right on time.

This is a program that had struggled for decades to carve out its niche in a state dominated by its blue-blooded rivals, much less recapture the magic of Jim Valvano’s 1983 national championship run.

Coach after coach had failed to get NC State back on equal footing Duke and North Carolina, and it appeared Keatts was destined to suffer the same fate. As the ACC tournament began, speculation swirled about whether the school might move on after seven years without a real breakthrough.

But now the narrative has completely flipped. Keatts’ job is secure, NC State fans have something from the modern era to hold onto and the future is full of hope. For Keatts, this wasn’t just a great run of basketball games, it was proof of concept.

“I mean, we have a story,” Keatts said. "When you’re in any sports, you want to have a story. Look at our story. The way this story was written was unbelievable.”

That will never go away. Of course NC State was disappointed not to win the game, to not extend that magic another couple days. But for every college basketball program, the goal is to get here. NC State made that happen in a way nobody will forget.

“To see all the joy and happiness it’s brought our university, our city and everything, how many people got behind us not just from NC State but the whole country, it shows when you come together, stick together, what you can do as a team,” Horne said. "I’m just grateful I was a part of it all.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NC State's Final Four run ends but it was right on time for program