DJ Horne came home to Raleigh for an opportunity he almost didn’t get — to lead his hometown Wolfpack to the NCAA Tournament.

Just a week ago, it didn’t appear as if the graduate transfer from Arizona State would get to live out that dream.

NC State was a 10 seed at the ACC Tournament, in need of 5 wins in 5 days to have any chance of playing in March Madness. Worse yet, DJ Horne was unable to play in the tournament opener, saddled by a hip injury he suffered in NC State’s regular-season finale loss to Pitt.

Then it all started happening. NC State rallied to beat hapless Louisville in the opening round and routed Syracuse in round 2, and by the evening of NC State’s quarterfinal matchup with Duke, Horne was feeling like himself again. That’s when a “nice run” became a miracle made for a movie.

Horne poured in 18 to help NC State upset Duke, then asked “Why not us?” about his Wolfpack’s chances of finishing their run in postgame interviews. Overnight, red shirts appeared at Capital One Arena with “Why not us” in black print. Deep into the following night, when Michael O’Connell hit his miracle 3 to send a rough and tumble semifinal with Virginia to overtime, it was Horne again who put the game to bed, icing 4 clutch free throws down the stretch to send NC State to the championship against North Carolina.

Related: Want to bet on the NCAA Tournament? Here’s all you need to know about the best sportsbooks on the market for March of 2024!

In the ACC Championship game win over the hated Tar Heels, Horne played the best basketball of his life, scoring 29 points and going shot for shot, on better field goal percentages, than ACC Player of the Year RJ Davis. Time and again, when the Wolfpack needed a bucket, Horne made it, and when he fouled out with 2 minutes to go, he received a rousing standing ovation from the NC State faithful.

Horne’s wingman in the Wolfpack’s miracle run to the ACC title was another transfer named DJ — DJ Burns.

The “other” DJ began his career with Tennessee before transferring to his hometown of Rock Hill, South Carolina, just outside of Charlotte where he became an All-Big South star at Winthrop. After 3 successful years at Winthrop, Burns wanted to challenge himself in the Power 6 again and landed at NC State, where he’s found a happy marriage.

Burns was magnificent throughout the ACC Tournament, but like Horne, saved his best for the final, when he dropped 20 points and dished out a career high 7 assists, outplaying Tar Heel All-American Armando Bacot in the post. Best of all, Burns buried a long 3 in the first half, his first career 3 in what was his 160th college game. As he danced down the court after the make, he flexed toward the crowd, basking for a moment in adulation.

Burns plays with the infectious joy of a young man living out an incredible dream, and after capturing ACC Tournament MVP honors, he explained why he’ll never play another way.

“I tell anyone: When I stop having fun with it, I’ll be done, and if I can’t smile, it’s probably not something I’m gonna do,” Burns said. “Life is all about having fun. It just happens to be through basketball. I’m gonna be a happy person regardless.”

Horne, who told SDS that Burns’ relentless optimism “is contagious,” wants more than just a DC miracle.

The last team to win 5 games in 5 days was 2011 UConn, and that ended with Kemba Walker and the Huskies cutting down the nets at the Final Four in Houston. When reminded of that, Horne smiled.

“Like I said, why not us?” Horne told SDS on Saturday night.  “Why not us? That doesn’t stop in DC. We aren’t done,” the senior insisted, before reflecting again. “It’s crazy though, because a week ago we thought these games in DC would be the last we played.”

Instead, NC State’s DJs will lead the Wolfpack into the NCAA Tournament, where the newly crowned ACC Champion Pack will play 6th seeded Texas Tech in Pittsburgh on Thursday night. The odds of the Pack winning it all are +25,000 via FanDuel.

Both of NC State’s DJs know about March heartache.

A season ago, a Wolfpack team that played better than this one most the season limped into the NCAA Tournament having lost 3 of its final 4 games. NC State was outplayed for 40 minutes by Creighton in the first round and quickly sent home.

Burns was dire in the Creighton game, scoring just 2 points and navigating foul trouble against Creighton’s talented frontcourt. Horne didn’t get to watch that game, as he was playing in the NCAA Tournament himself for Arizona State. But he knows the pain of an early exit, as the Sun Devils, despite 17 points and 6 rebounds from Horne, blew an 11-point lead in the final 10 minutes to fall 72-71 to TCU in the Round of 64.

This March could — should — be different.

Texas Tech is a terrific basketball team, but they struggle to defend at times and can be turnover prone, 2 things NC State should be able to exploit. The Wolfpack also will almost certainly have the better fan support, with a loyal contingent of traveling fans and a shorter trip to Pittsburgh than Texas Tech.

The Wolfpack are also healthy for the first time all season. Multiple starters have missed games due to injury, including Horne, sharpshooting senior guard Casey Morsell, and Missouri transfer Mohamed Diarra, who literally bled on the floor of the ACC Tournament game but played through a recurring cut lip to post 11 points and 14 rebounds in the title game.

Together on the floor again, this “band of brothers,” as Morsell called it Saturday night, wants to keep marching on.

It’s tough when the music stops, and in March, it stops suddenly for every team but one.

But the Wolfpack have their DJs, and they’ll push the Pack to make the music last a bit longer.