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In dominating Duke, DJ Burns Jr. finds March Madness stardom during NC State’s unlikely Final Four run

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In dominating Duke, DJ Burns Jr. finds March Madness stardom during NC State’s unlikely Final Four run


DALLAS – NC State center DJ Burns Jr. skipped onto the floor armed with an ear-to-ear grin as he led the Wolfpack out for warmups to prepare to take down Duke Sunday in the Elite Eight. More than two hours later, Burns was skipping and smiling again as he checked out of the game after his and-one put rival Duke on the ropes. In between his pregame jubilation and the final horn, he orchestrated an iconic March Madness performance to guide No. 11 seed NC State to a 76-64 win sending NC State to its first Final Four since 1983.

Burns led NC State with 29 points on 13-of-19 shooting along with three assists and four rebounds. And as the game wore on and as the stakes grew higher, the burly Burns got better and more difficult to defend. With every circus turnaround shot and runner that dropped, he gathered more confidence and the look in his eye grew brighter. He finished the second half 9-of-11 shooting and destroyed Duke’s defense with 21 points in the most polite way possible.�

“We knew we had an advantage throwing the ball inside to [DJ],” said NC State coach Kevin Keatts, who became the school’s first coach since Jim Valvano to lead the Pack into the Final Four. “They decided, which some teams do, not to double-team him, and obviously he shot 13 for 19 and had 29 points.”

It was Burns who set the tone for NC State on Sunday in its stunning upset of ACC rival and crosstown foe Duke in their first-ever NCAA Tournament matchup and it was Burns who was ultimately the most responsible for sending Duke packing. He scored a mid-range bucket to open the game. He gave Duke big man Kyle Filipowski a forearm shiver moments later for another basket. Then in the second half, he found another gear and threw the Pack on his back.

A one-handed runner from Burns with 4:19 remaining in the game put NC State up 14 points and gave him 23 points on the day, after which all he could do was – what else? – smile.�

“He’s just a fun-loving, people person who loves having fun and enjoys life,” his dad, Dwight Sr., told CBS Sports after the game. “He was raised to enjoy life. He just loves the game. This is all just fun for him.”�

Even in one of the most high stakes NCAA Tournament games in program history, Burns was enjoying the moment.

“I was raised in a happy environment,” Burns said. “I try to take that with me everywhere I go.”

NC State’s unlikely run to the NCAA Tournament and now the Final Four – culminated by devastating Duke and ending its season – is one thing to absorb for a rival like the Blue Devils. It’s quite another when the opposing player leading that charge is doing it with courtesy. It says a lot about someone who will kick your tail and remain gentlemanly while doing so. That’s exactly what he did.�

In the second half as NC State pulled away, Burns, during a lengthy video review to determine if a shot attempt was considered a Duke goaltend, bobbed his head up and down and waved his arms at midcourt to “It’s Tricky” by Run-D.M.C. That’s DJ Burns Jr. Always smiling. Always cutting up. Always and forever now a March Madness legend.

That NC State got to the NCAA Tournament is a minor miracle in itself. That NC State is going to the Final Fouris nothing short of a “miracle run,” as Keatts said after the game. And it was only possible because Keatts and Burns needed a change – and ultimately each other.

“Typically I play with two forwards – Ben [Middlebrook] and Mo [Diarra] together,” Keatts said. “But when DJ hit the transfer portal, I was like, man, I got to change.�

“[Burns] changed me,” Keatts continued. “I’ve never thrown the ball inside as much as I have in the last couple of years. … It’s changed the way I look at post guys now. I’ve now found out that I can have a mix of throwing the ball to a post guy and having guard play.”

It’s changed Burns, too. Burns began his career at Tennessee, then bounced to Winthrop before joining NC State two years ago. The Wolfpack needed size in the frontcourt and Burns needed a change of scenery. Win-win.�

“This is where he came and really found himself,” Dwight Sr. said. “These players are his brothers. The coaches are phenomenal. Coach Keatts has poured into DJ like a father figure, and this place has become like a family.”

Just 19 days ago, NC State’s NCAA hopes were bleak. The team was on the brink of a first-round exit to cellar-dwelling Louisville in the ACC Tournament, and Keatts was likely on the outs. But NC State rallied and won five games in five days to clinch the ACC title. Now it has won four NCAA Tournament games to extend its winning streak to nine, all of which were elimination games. There’s no way to explain it, really, just how unlikely all of the last few weeks have been. But Burns’ pops has an idea — and his spiritual side tends to agree with Keatts: it’s an Easter weekend miracle. The Pack have risen once again back to the top of college basketball.

“I’m a deacon, so, I give it all to Him,” Dwight Sr. said, pointing to the sky. “This is something only the Lord could do.”

As the trophy ceremony began inside the American Airlines Center, a sea of red bellowed “Why not us?” as NC State players stood on the stage and egged on the crowd. Keatts walked by, shook my hand and said: “They didn’t think we could do this.”

He’s right. But NC State is playing at the peak of its powers, and Burns has launched himself into supernova territory. Given this miraculous run already, what’s two more games?



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