41 years later, Cinderella dances again


Allegany Communications Sports

North Carolina State basketball clearly wins the prize as the winner of every year’s greatest sports weekend – the weekend baseball season begins and the NCAA Final Four teams are determined – as both the Wolfpack men’s and women’s teams clinched Final Four berths on the same day, with the third-seeded State women beating No. 1 seed Texas and the No. 11 State men beating No. 4 Duke, 76-64.

Both feats are pretty remarkable, as the State women make their first Final Four appearance in 26 years. Yet given the recent high seeds in the NCAA Tournament of the women’s team, what is really remarkable is the performance of the men’s team, which was a No. 11 seed entering the Madness, meaning this time a month ago, nobody in the world figured State had a popsicle’s chance in hell of getting past the first round of the ACC Tournament much less make the NCAA Tournament.

Now they’re in the Final Four for the first time in 41 years.

With Sunday’s win over Duke, State won its ninth straight game – all nine of them elimination games.

Entering the ACC Tournament, the Wolfpack had lost four in a row to end the season and finish 10th in the conference. With head coach Kevin Keatts firmly on the hot seat, State beat Louisville in the Tuesday round of the ACC Tournament, then proceeded to roll to wins over Syracuse, Duke and Virginia before beating North Carolina in the final to win the ACC championship.

The fun didn’t stop there; in fact, it hasn’t stopped yet, as State beat Texas Tech in the first round of the NCAA, then Oakland, then Marquette, and now Duke.

Oh, that hot seat, Keatts was on entering the ACC Tournament? He’s not going anywhere, as the win over Marquette to reach the Elite Eight, according to USA Today, earned Keatts a $50,000 bonus, putting him at $250.000 in total bonuses this postseason, and also triggered a two-year contract extension that will raise his annual salary by $400,000.

This team just reminds so many of us of that 1983 team that stole the nation’s heart with its magical run to what remains the most inspiring national championship in NCAA history. Not so much the team itself, because this team is nothing like the 1983 team of Coach Jim Valvano that entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed, but more so in the way that team needed an improbable ACC Tournament championship to get into the NCAA field as well.

And they got it, beating Wake Forest, defending national champion North Carolina and Michael Jordan, and No. 1-ranked Virginia and center Ralph Sampson to win the title.

Led by guards Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe, and forward Thurl Bailey, the Wolfpack went on to shock the world and steal our hearts with wins over Pepperdine, UNLV (double-overtime), Utah, Virginia again, and then the Phi Slama Jama Houston Cougars of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler on a last-second putpack by Lorenzo Charles.

Led by the lovable giant DJ Burns and guard DJ Horne, this NC State team rekindles the spirit and the magic of the ‘83 Wolfpack because it just seems to have so much fun when it’s playing together and winning together. And why not? They’ve been playing with the house money and have been since the beginning of March; and with their coach seemingly on the way out, what did they have to lose?

We don’t know. Because they haven’t lost yet.

I was fortunate to cover the 1983 NC State team well before its run had begun when it was in College Park to play Maryland. My assignment, working for the Prince George’s Sentinel, was to do a feature on Thurl Bailey, a P.G. County graduate of Bladensburg High, and to check in with Lowe and Whittenburg, both of whom graduated from DeMatha, also a P.G. County school.

State lost to the Terps that night, and Whittenburg was out indefinitely with a broken foot, but I talked to all three of them as well as Coach Valvano, which remains one of the great thrills of my career, even though they were months away from even making the NCAA Tournament.

They all were just so friendly and cooperative and, despite the loss to Maryland and the injury to Whittenburg, they seemed so very positive, calm and confident that, in time, they were going to be just fine. And brother, were they ever.

I rooted for NC State that year, as did millions of others, because they were so likable and because they were the underdog of underdogs.

Plus, I covered the ACC fairly regularly in those days, and I saw first-hand how ACC schools not named Duke and North Carolina were treated by the ACC. NC State has always been one of the red-headed stepchildren, a Cinderella in her most basic form, of the state of North Carolina and of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

And guess who this State team, as did the ‘83 State team, beat along the way to the Final Four? The two most privileged stepsisters of its own conference.

And that’s just the kind of sweet story that does a heart good. Unless you’re one of the stepsisters.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT