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NC State's Final Four double has Wolfpack fans howling with March Madness delight

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The grave sits perched on a hill in the historic 72-acre Oakwood Cemetery near downtown. It bears “Valvano” carved in large letters on polished black stone, honoring North Carolina State’s charismatic coach who sold big dreams then lived them in an unforgettable run to the 1983 national championship.

Jimmy V has been gone more than three decades. Yet visitors are leaving fresh tributes: flowers, a bobblehead of the late men's basketball coach, a large “Go Pack” foam No. 1 finger, a small red-and-white basketball bearing the “Tuffy” sailor hat-wearing mascot, a can of Wolfpack-branded beer sitting aside a themed bag of “Pack Snack” kettle chips.

Among those: a sticker bearing the “Why not us?” mantra defining the maddest of March moments here in decades.

The Wolfpack men have followed their first Atlantic Coast Conference championship since 1987 with an even more improbable Final Four appearance, the first since Valvano's “Cardiac Pack” magic of ’83. Even more magical: The women are in the Final Four, too, their first trip since 1998, which came under their own beloved late Hall of Famer, Kay Yow.

It’s all led to an emotional reconnection with past glory on Tobacco Road, including this time a generation that has never seen anything like this before.

“Thrilled for both programs, both coaches, our students,” athletic director Boo Corrigan said. “But the fan base that’s been with us, that’s been a part of this and believing year in and year out … the excitement is really kind of the best part of it.″

It’s a thrill borne of built-up frustration. The feeling of having to do everything the hard way as a constant underdog. Even fighting against a Murphy’s Law-type jinx known around these parts as “N.C. State (Expletive).” Yet battered hope remains, for a women’s team that has been nationally relevant for numerous seasons and a men’s program that spent much of the post-Valvano era wandering in the wilderness.

Payoffs came Sunday with Final Four tickets. Now N.C. State owns a spotlight it often has to fight to share with nearby rivals Duke — the 11th-seeded Wolfpack men’s Elite Eight victim — and North Carolina.

Rod Brind’Amour, coach of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, understands those dynamics. The Hurricanes share PNC Arena with the Wolfpack men and played their Stadium Series outdoor game last year in the school’s Carter-Finley Stadium football home. He also married the daughter of former N.C. State player and assistant coach Eddie Biedenbach.

“It’s been a long time,” Brind’Amour said. “Something good needed to happen there (for) all the loyal fans and stuff. It’s pretty special that both teams … are in it. I think that’s pretty cool. It’s nice to have all the buzz around.”

That explains why fans keep flocking to the red-lit Memorial Belltower after wins to celebrate a ride beginning with the men’s five-games-in-five-days run to the ACC title, the origin of coach Kevin Keatts’ “Why not us?” message to his players.

By early Monday, fans were greeting one Final Four team in its campus homecoming, then the other about two hours later.

Both programs have leaned into it. Women’s coach Wes Moore attended the men’s ACC title win in the nation’s capital, then Keatts sat behind press row as Moore’s women beat Tennessee in an NCAA second-round home win.

Businessman Greg Hatem, whose Empire Properties helped revitalize downtown Raleigh with restaurants and building projects, is savoring it all. Part of the Wolfpack Club’s board of directors, Hatem was a photographer for N.C. State’s student newspaper The Technician during the 1983 run that ended with Lorenzo Charles’ dunk to beat Houston and Valvano frantically looking for someone to hug in Albuquerque.

It was an enduring moment for a program that also won the 1974 NCAA title, which included beating UCLA in the Final Four to end John Wooden’s run of seven straight championships. Now 2024 has its place in Wolfpack lore.

“It’s nice to feel the energy again, it's nice to see people out wearing the red,” Hatem said. “I have a habit: win or lose, the day of the game and the day after, I always wear an N.C. State shirt. ... You know, there’s a lot of fans around here, they don’t like to wear their color blue when they don’t win. Well, we do that all the time.”

Hatem had decided to ride out March with the men, who entered the ACC tourney on a four-game skid and needing to win the whole thing to reach March Madness amid uncertainty about Keatts’ future. What looked like a brief trip has now included NCAA games in Pittsburgh and Dallas with 14-year-old son George, who has “been squeezing school in and out of this thing.”

“It’s nice to see kind of the crescendo of people coming back out that just weren’t energized,” Hatem said. “It’s not that they weren’t fans. But now they’re excited again, and I’m talking about the young ones who have never seen this, and folks my age who have seen and remember ’83 and ’74.

“It’s something I didn’t know when we would get to see it. I love the fact I get to see it with my family now, but I love the fact that I get to see it again, too.”

The same is true of 1983 team member Ernie Myers, who said teammates are talking constantly about this run on their group text. Charles, he of the famous dunk, died in 2011 and is buried not far from Valvano.

“A lot of these people I meet now, that are my age, they would tell their kids about ’83 and how they were on campus,” Myers said. “And some of the parents, now their kids or their grandkids now are experiencing what they experienced at N.C. State with this run. And they’re telling them: ‘This is like ’83! This is how it was!‘”

Myers is a radio analyst for the women and worked their Elite Eight win against Texas. The wait hadn’t been quite the same for Moore's team, which won three straight ACC tournaments from 2020-22 and reached the Elite Eight two years ago. That top-seeded team faced a lower-seeded Connecticut team in the Huskies’ home state, suffering a crushing double-overtime loss.

Yet this team picked eighth in the ACC took that final step.

Chasity Melvin was the top scorer for the program's lone Final Four appearance before playing professionally in the WNBA and overseas, and has since moved into coaching. She’s following superstitious routines for the Wolfpack’s matching runs: wearing N.C. State socks, sitting in the middle of a three-cushion couch, no texting or tweeting during play.

“I know I got talked smack to throughout my whole career, traveling across the world,” Melvin said. “It's like ‘Oh, you’re Carolina?’ And I hate that. When I’d say I played at N.C. State: ‘Oh the Tar Heels?’ No! People don’t know about us just because of that dominance of UNC and Duke.

“I believe it was very hard for coaches and ADs to really have a vision of, ‘OK, we’re tired of saying we just can’t do it because we have to fight with Carolina and Duke.’ But actually demanding, like: ‘Hey, it’s going to be hard but we want to build a culture. We can get on the winning side of this game, too.‘”

N.C. State is the 11th school to reach the men’s and women’s Final Four in the same season. UConn is the only school to do it multiple times, and the Huskies’ double clinched Monday night marks the first time two schools have done it in the same year.

The Wolfpack women face No. 1 overall seed and unbeaten South Carolina on Friday in Cleveland. The men face top regional seed Purdue on Saturday in Glendale, Arizona. Title games are Sunday and Monday, respectively.

“It’s a special time obviously,” Moore said. “Memories that will last you a lifetime.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness