GLENDALE, Ariz. – There were some tears, of course.

That’s to be expected when you’ve invested so much and come as far as NC State has over the past month, only to fall short this close to the finish line.

And yet, even as the finality of Saturday’s 63-50 Final Four semifinal loss to Purdue began to hit home, the disappointment that cast a pall over the Wolfpack’s locker room at State Farm Stadium was already being tempered by an even more intense sense of accomplishment.

As well it should.

There are times in which you can still declare victory even when the numbers on the scoreboard say you’ve lost.

After winning 9 consecutive elimination games, reaching goals that haven’t been met in decades rather than years and changing the trajectory of an entire athletic program as Kevin Keatts and his players have during their magical run to the Final Four, this is one of those times.

“We’re going to leave out of here because Purdue won the game,” Keatts said. “But we’re going to walk out of here with our heads up as champions, because of what we’ve been able to provide. The memories these guys have created for NC State basketball, but more importantly for themselves, will last for the rest of their lives. These guys are champions. And I’m proud of them.”

It had been 37 years since a Wolfpack team had won an ACC Tournament title until Keatts and his players ended the drought in the most improbable way imaginable by winning 5 games in as many days. And taking down rivals Duke and North Carolina along the way.

It had been 41 years since a State team had cut down the nets as an NCAA region champion and advanced to the Final Four before this group checked off that box as well last week in Dallas.

Again, at the expense of the hated Blue Devils.

Their improbable success sparked hopeful comparisons to Jim Valvano’s national champion Cardiac Pack of 1983. But instead of being a team of destiny, this team’s destiny was to come up 1 game short of the ultimate prize.

Done in by too much Zach Edey and not enough baskets.

“He’s a tall guy,” said the Wolfpack’s star big man DJ Burns, who struggled as much with foul trouble as he did with trying to defend Purdue’s 2-time National Player of the Year. “If you let him get to his spots, he’s going to make his shots. We cleaned it up (in the 2nd half), but it was a little too late.”

Even though Edey finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks, State’s defense overall was good enough to win most games. The Wolfpack forced 16 turnovers and the Boilermakers’ 63 points were the 2nd-fewest they’ve allowed in their 10 postseason games.

But while their defense was vintage March, their offense reverted back to the depths of their mid-February slump.

At the most inopportune of times.

State shot 28.6% from the floor in the 2nd half and went only 5 of its 19 3-point attempts for the game. It took a 7-0 run to finish the game just to reach the 50-point mark. Even at that, it was the lowest-scoring performance of the season for a team that was among the ACC leaders at 73 points per game.

In many ways, the game followed a similar pattern to the loss that ended the Final Four run of the Wolfpack women against South Carolina in Cleveland a night earlier by falling victim to a disastrous final 20 minutes.

“I think it was just 1 of those days where the ball wasn’t bouncing our way,” said DJ Horne, State’s leading scorer with 20. “Looking back at it, I can’t remember everything that went on in the game. Off the top of my head, I know we didn’t make shots at a high clip.”

Some of that can be attributed to a pulled hamstring suffered by point guard Michael O’Connell midway through the opening half that limited him to 12 minutes. The towering 7-4 presence of Edey in the middle also might have affected some of their shots.

Or maybe State simply ran out of gas and was beaten by a better team. Purdue entered the game as an 8.5 favorite, according to ESPN Bet sportsbook.


That’s not what anyone who went along for this amazing ride with the Wolfpack will take with them and remember about these magical past 4 weeks.

Instead, they’ll talk about O’Connell’s miracle shot against Virginia and Burns’ beatdown of Duke with the same kind of reverence as they hold for Lorenzo Charles’ game-winning dunk against Houston in the 1983 title game. And the names DJ Horne, Casey Morsell, Mohamed Diarra, Ben Middlebrooks and Breon Pass will be held in the same high regard as Burleson, Towe, Whittenburg and Lowe.

“This group is special,” said Morsell, the team’s senior member. “Even though we came up short, we’ll never forget this run. We’ll never forget the memories of this run. The ups and downs, oh my gosh. It helped me both on and off the court. Without these guys, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”

While this Wolfpack team didn’t finish the job the way their predecessors did in 1974 and ‘83, it accomplished something nearly as important by restoring State to the highest rung on the college basketball ladder.

And that makes them champions. No matter what the scoreboard says.