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Welcome to Raleigh, N.C. Population: 2 Final Four teams

THE CENTER OF THE COLLEGE BASKETBALL UNIVERSE (OR RALEIGH, N.C.) — It is exactly 1 p.m. the day after the biggest win of Kevin Keatts’ coaching career — NC State’s improbable Elite Eight victory over rival Duke, sending the Wolfpack to its first Final Four since 1983 — and Keatts is steps from the entrance to the campus bookstore. Unsurprisingly, the man behind the school’s most successful postseason run in over four decades cannot get far without being stopped.

Like, not even a few feet.

Students ask for selfies. Passersby throw up the Wolfpack hand signal (middle and ring finger touching the thumb, the other two digits straight up like wolf’s ears) and share encouraging words. Keatts, donning an incredible sweatshirt with five ice cream cones on it — one for each of his team’s five ACC tournament wins last month — is sweating in the hotter-than-it-sounds 79-degree weather, but he’s smiling. Beaming, actually. Soaking up every second of this run for the ages.

Two women approach Keatts before he crosses an intersection, and tell him what every NC State fan is thinking right now: “Coach, we hope you go all the way!”

“That,” he responded, grinning, “makes three of us.”

NC State men’s coach Kevin Keatts was a popular figure on campus Monday.

Ideally, Keatts — less than 24 hours removed from that historic victory, and less than 12 hours after he, his staff, and his players landed at home from Dallas — would be game-planning by now, ahead of Saturday’s Final Four meeting with No. 1 seed Purdue. (Or, you know, napping. It’s been a long weekend.) Instead? He’s bopping around campus, not seeking out any adoration … but as part of a prescheduled visit from a potential transfer portal target. Sign of the times, that he’s doing so with this season still ongoing. Although, all things considered, could there be an easier recruiting pitch?

Hey, planning on watching the Final Four this weekend? Yeah? Well, we’re in it.

Such is the view from the epicenter of campus in Raleigh, N.C. — which this week, also happens to double as the center of the college basketball universe. For all the hype surrounding NC State’s men’s team, all the comparisons to its 1983 title team, don’t forget that the NC State women are also Final Four-bound. In fact, the women’s team — which upset No. 1 seed Texas 76-66 in the Elite Eight, en route to the program’s first Final Four in 26 years — has been the more accomplished of the two the last few years. Wes Moore’s program won three consecutive ACC tournament titles from 2020-2022, as well as the 2022 ACC regular-season title. It even reached the Elite Eight in 2022, eventually falling (in controversial fashion) to UConn. (The Huskies have also sent both their men’s and women’s teams to the 2024 Final Fours.)

But this is a new threshold for them, too, a bar no NC State women’s team has hit since 1998, during the program’s only other Final Four appearance. It’s fitting that both the men and women made history on the same day, hours apart. The women went first, winning in Portland, Ore. — and by the time they got to their postgame locker room, the second half of the men’s game was just beginning.

By then, back in Raleigh, NC State students and fans had already started sprinting to Memorial Belltower to celebrate. In her postgame press conference, Aziaha James — who made seven 3-pointers against Texas, scored 27 points, and was named MOP of the Portland 4 region — was asked about the significance of making school history.

“It’s good,” she said, “to light it up for Hillsborough (Street).”

And light up the tower they did, a brilliant bright red. Same color as the (many) cracked red solo cups stuffed in two recycling bins next to the obelisk. Parents, in the comfort of the daylight, paraded their kids in front of the monument, asked them to hold up their Wolfpack signs, and took commemorative photos — hoping, unlike themselves, that their children won’t have to wait decades to take another.

Maybe some of those snapshots will one day hang in Player’s Retreat — the NC State bar, originally founded in 1951. Today, the dimly-lit haunt with 15 TVs behind its main bar is stuffed with tilted black-and-white photos and memorabilia, like the 1983 “Cardiac Pack” bumper sticker when you first walk in. Richard “Gus” Gusler, the owner since 2005, said fans were lining up for entry before noon on Sunday … over three hours before the women’s game tipped.

Gusler said it’s been this way — an increasing fervor — since the men’s team’s five-wins-in-five days run through the ACC tournament. Before then? The Wolfpack had been written off after losing their last four regular-season games. “I don’t think anybody in their right mind believed that what has happened would have happened,” Gusler said. “I mean, if you had predicted that and bet some money? You could’ve made a lot of money with some of these new sports books.”

(Some NC State fans have shared bet slips like that on social media lately; one, who bet $100 on the Wolfpack to win the men’s title at +25,000 odds, would net 25 grand if Keatts’ team wins twice in Phoenix.)

Gusler is an NC State lifer. A fan since he was 6. Did his undergrad in Raleigh — even working at Player’s Retreat, or PR, as it is affectionately known — and then grad school. Knew Jim Valvano, the legendary coach who led the Wolfpack to that ’83 title, and whose magic the program has been chasing ever since. Gusler, also an attorney, worked with Valvano when he was accused of NCAA infractions late in his coaching career, ones that ultimately forced him to resign as coach and athletic director. Gusler and his wife, like so many long-suffering NC State fans, have long felt that the university’s mishandling of the Valvano situation — years before his famous ESPY speech and death from cancer — cast a pall over the entire place.

“We’ve had a curse on us,” Gusler said. “But I kind of feel like there’s a magic that came out at the end of this season … and maybe that magic is getting rid of the curse. If there was a curse, then it’s gone — and I’m going to believe that for a while. This has taken care of it.”



What’s the lifespan of a ghost? Forty years after its miracle run, NC State is trying to find out

It’s hard not to; the NC State men have the most losses of any Final Four team ever, and tie for the lowest seed as a No. 11. The women, despite multiple all-conference players of late — and even a national star like All-American Elissa Cunane — could muster tournament runs … but have made their deepest one in a so-called “rebuilding” season. NC State is now the first school since Connecticut in 2014 to have both its men’s and women’s teams in the Final Four in the same season.

Moore is a PR regular, holding court in “his” booth like Valvano used to in his heyday. But just getting a booth in general is tough these days. Sunday was the single-best day, profit-wise, in the 73-year history of the bar. On Friday, when the men beat Marquette in the Sweet 16 — ironically, the ’83 title team also beat Marquette on its storied run — Gusler said PR made about $8,000 from 4- 5 p.m. alone … hours before tipoff.

That’s more than his weekly average back when he first bought the bar.

“We’ve had to turn away a lot of people,” Gusler added. “I honestly can’t remember how long it’s been (since that happened). I’m not sure if that’s ever been the case for an NC State sporting event in the 18 years I’ve owned the place.”

American Idol winner Scottie McCreery, an NC State alum, visited Sunday. So did Rep. Deborah Ross, who represents that part of Raleigh in Congress. And then, when the final buzzer sounded vs. Duke, any fans who weren’t already celebrating the women at the bell tower broke into a sprint to join them. “WOLF-PACK,” they screamed as they ran, even drowning out impromptu fireworks set off near campus.

That tidal wave of fandom has been building since before many current students were even born. But they, of course, want to get in on the fun. Whole tables of T-shirts — including plenty with the “Why Not Us?” slogan the men coined during their ACC tournament run — were sold out in the student bookstore, and the leftovers were being picked through as if by vultures. One student, desperately searching for an ACC tournament shirt, even tried to buy one off a stranger he saw in the shop on Monday. When she rebuffed his offer, he sulked to the table with a since-outdated (and for-sale) Sweet 16 collection. “That’s not as bada— as the other one, though,” he muttered before finding his size.

Across from the bookstore in the student union, parents and children desperate for tours were told that only self-guided options were available for the next week. Hosted ones? Totally sold out. One tour guide passing by Reynolds Coliseum — where the women play, and where Valvano’s historic teams used to — led her group in an appropriate block-lettered shirt: “THIS IS OUR STATE.”

And considering NC State is the lone Triangle team left standing, she has a point.

The buzz is palpable, because NC State fans have waited so long — too long — for this moment. For the same basketball success the generations before them saw firsthand. And now, in Phoenix and Cleveland, they have it, regardless of what happens next. Both teams are underdogs in their next game — the men vs. Purdue, the women vs. undefeated South Carolina — but the appreciation of what they’ve already accomplished will linger regardless of next weekend.

Just consider what athletic director Boo Corrigan told Moore over the weekend: “He said, if I accepted every free beer that’s been offered me here in Dallas, I’d probably be in a gutter somewhere,” Moore said.

But there’s no greater sign of the love NC State fans have for this moment than what unfolded a 10-minute drive from campus. Go through the stone archway leading into Oakwood Cemetery, hang a right into the main area and slowly drift to the back, and you see it: Valvano’s headstone, still glistening black even under a thin film of pollen. There are usually artifacts here, flowers, longtime fans coming to pay their respects — but never to this degree.

Among the offerings? A half-drank tallboy of Riviera, the collaborative beer the university did with local R&D Brewing; there’s a rubber band around the can, holding some wilted roses off the ground. A small foam ball with the Wolfpack logo. A sticker from the campus bookstore, with that same “Why Not Us?” motto. And so, so many flowers.

“It shows you the impact,” Gusler said, “that these teams have had on Wolfpack Nation.”

(Photos: Brendan Marks / The Athletic)

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