DJ burns [600x400]
DJ burns [600x400] (Credit: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

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DALLAS -- When NC State added big man DJ Burns Jr. via the transfer portal two seasons ago, coach Kevin Keatts knew it would change his career.

He wouldn't learn the extent of that change until Sunday, when Burns led the charge to send Keatts and the Wolfpack to the men's Final Four, the program's first trip there since it won the NCAA tournament in 1983. Burns scored 21 of his 29 points in the second half as NC State beat Duke 76-64 to win the South Regional.

Burns had eight of NC State's first 11 points but picked up his second foul 10 minutes into the game and didn't score the rest of the first half. The Wolfpack shot 27% in the first half and trailed 27-21.

But behind the 21 points from Burns and 15 from guard DJ Horne, NC State shot 73% in the second half and scored 55 points. The Wolfpack outscored Duke 31-11 over a 12-minute stretch in the half to take control of the game, and the Blue Devils never made a serious threat after that.

NC State's remarkable run to the Final Four as an 11-seed began in earnest that day two years ago when Burns transferred from Winthrop, though Keatts didn't know that then. What he did know was that he had never coached a player with Burns' post skills and that his coaching strategy would have to change to take advantage of them.

"I've never thrown the ball inside as much as I have in the last couple of years," Keatts said. "Great touch, great footwork.

"It's changed the way I look at post guys now. There's probably only a few of those in the country, [and] I'm glad he's on my team."

Duke's strategy was to not double down on Burns when he got the ball down low, as many NC State opponents had done. In the Sweet 16, Marquette consistently sent a second defender to Burns, and he took just four shots and scored four points.

Burns made the Blue Devils pay. He scored his 29 points on 19 shots.

"I wouldn't say I was too worried about it," Burns said of his early foul trouble. "I missed a few shots toward the end [of the first half], so they weren't going to double-team me in the second half. I just decided when I came back in to take advantage."

Keatts said he saw some things in the first half that told him NC State would bust out offensively in the second half.

"We missed a lot of chippys," he said. "We left a lot of things on the rim. I counted myself five missed layups, and my assistant coaches were losing it. I was like, 'Relax, we are going to be fine.'

"We talked about staying to the scouting report and the ball will go in in the second half. ... We knew we had an advantage throwing the ball inside of [Burns]."

Meanwhile, the Wolfpack had Duke out of sorts when the Blue Devils had the ball. They made just 25% of their 3-point shots, far less than their season average of 38%. Overall they shot 32%, their worst number of the season.

The 12-point losing margin was the largest of the season for the Blue Devils.

"We weren't us today," guard Jeremy Roach said.

Said Duke coach Jon Scheyer: "That's probably the most disjointed we've looked all year."

NC State, at 26-14, has more losses than any other Final Four team ever. It is the seventh team to reach the Final Four as a double-digit seed, the last having been UCLA in 2021. None of the previous six won the title.

The Wolfpack looked like a lost cause just three weeks ago heading into the NCAA tournament. They wouldn't have even qualified without taking down the ACC tournament field, which they did by winning five games in five days.

Now, their winning streak is up to nine with No. 1 seed Purdue up next Saturday in Glendale, Arizona. They are playing better defensively and rebounding better than earlier in the season.

The biggest difference to Keatts is confidence. NC State trailed by as many as nine points in the first half but never flinched.

"I think our guys now are expecting to win," he said. "It's beautiful to watch."