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The Torrid History of NC State in the ACC Tournament Finals

In case you weren't aware , NC State is playing the ACC Tournament Finals tonight. In case you also weren't aware of how time works, 1987 was a long time ago. This was the last time the NC State men's basketball team last won the ACC Championship. That team was led by the inimitable Jimmy V, of course. Many folks think that the one national title and two ACC titles won by Mr. V have cost decades of karma that the Wolfpack may never recover from.

I, myself, do not prescribe to this notion. However, after going through this list you might. After 1987, it took 10 years for NC State to make it back to the finals. From 1997 to 2007, a span of 11 seasons, NC State made the finals a whopping FOUR times! That's like, 36.36363636% of the time in that stretch.

And how many titles did they come away with after all those opportunities? You guessed it: nada. Many of the State fans you see online complaining about the current status of the program were young'ns and youths (or yutes) during this 11 year stretch, and are quite familiar with the level of frustration these continued disappointments brought.


Maybe by going through this list I'll do some sort of reverse reverse reverse jinx and help NC State, or maybe we'll just have one more game to add to the list. Who knows? Let's go:

#1: 1997

UNC 64 - NC State 54

If you've ever wondered, "why were people so hard on Herb Sendek?", it's because expectations can sink a fan base against a coach. And it's really hard to temper expectations when you go on a great conference tournament run in your OPENING season by making the championship game, dispatching then #7 and top-seeded Duke in the quarterfinals, and #22 5-seed Maryland (blech) en route to facing, you guessed it, UNC, the finals.

This was Dean Smith's final ACC title, though nobody knew it at the time. NC State had a similar run that they've had during their current tournament, where they'd come back from a deficit. At the 49:30 mark of the video above, they were down by 8 (this was the before-times when games didn't have the scores on the screen at all times like now), then came back to cut UNC's lead to 3. Ultimately, Antawn Jamison and crew prevailed 64-54, but left many Pack fans hopeful that maybe this Sendek guy will help recapture some of that Jimmy V magic that wasn't so long ago at the time. After making it through the Les Robinson era, fans thought they'd found their guy. Time will tell if they had or not.

On a side note, I have hated many UNC players over the years. However, I always respected Ed Cota. History has largely not remembered him, but he was the best point guard in the ACC for a long time, and I always thought he should have gotten a better shot at the NBA. He was just a bit undersized, and came out in an era when that wasn't in vogue prior to Chris Paul.


#2: 2002

Duke 91 - NC State 61

From 1999 - 2006, Duke was an absolute Monster in the ACC. This was the second prime of Coach K's career (the first coming during the Grant Hill era). Going into this game against NC State, Duke had won the ACC title three straight years, and we're looking to become the first team in conference history to win a fourth. Not only did they do that, they came back the next year and won again (see below) for a fifth. They lost the next year after that, 2004, in OT to Maryland (yuck), and came back to win TWO MORE back to back. In eight years, they won seven titles, a number not seen before or since in conference history, and likely won't ever be reached again.

After throttling Virginia by 20 in the opening game, NC State upset then-#2 Maryland (good riddance), the top team in the ACC that season, in the semifinals and had Duke waiting for them. This was the classic example of running out of gas, and they only had to play three games in three days, not the FIVE that Kevin Keatts and crew are trying to accomplish. There's very little to remember from this game except pain. Lots of pain. There's not much that you could do against a roster with Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, Dahntay Jones, Chris Duhon and Daniel Ewing on it. All those guys ended up in the NBA for some time, and along with Casey Sanders they had eight top-100 prospects on the team. Just a beast.

The cracks were starting to show in the Herb era, and the buzzards were circling. But fans loved the players on that team: Anthony Grundy, Julius Hodge, Marcus Melvin, Archie Miller, Josh Powell, Ilian Evtimov, Scooter Sherrill, Cliff Crawford, and Levi Watkins.


#3: 2003

Duke 84 - NC State 77

Man....I kinda don't want to talk about this one. It's been 21 years and it still stings. Here's a nice documentary on it if you want to watch. It brought back nightmares for me.

Replace Jay Williams and Carlos Boozer with freshmen JJ Redick and Shelden Williams, and you have another conference champion.

This was the year. NC State fans could FEEL it. The buzz around town was palpable that weekend. The Wolfpack came in as the 4 seed and started things off by handily beating Georgia Tech in the opening game. Then they pulled out a great week against top-seeded and then-#9 Wake Forest on their way to the finals. Are you noticing a trend in these tournament runs? Herb Sendek beat the top-seeded team each of the three times he went to the finals, but couldn't seal the deal at the end. One can understand why a fan base would feel that it may never happen when they see this happen three times in seven years.

But this time was THE time. It wasn't supposed to be like the last few times. NC State came out with an edge, they had a singular purpose, and they really felt like they had Duke's number. The Pack had beaten Duke (#3 at the time) at home earlier in the year, so they knew they COULD do it. And it really seemed like it was going to happen. There was all this talk about how it was the 20th anniversary of the 1983 championship run. With Miller and Grundy gone, this team had become Hodge's. It's impossible to understate how much the fans loved him, and he loved the State fans right back. He was the key basketball player during my time in school, so for me he's my favorite Pack player ever.

Center Josh Powell had been having his way with the Blue Devils, and with 11:40 left in the game, hit a three to stretch their lead to 15(!!!) points! The worst thing NC State fans could do in the moment was get confident, and think they were finally about to get the monkey off their back. Enter: Sandman, I mean JJ Redick. As a freshman he already had the gene to know how to rip NC State's heart out, and he would go on to do it other times in his career.

Through the final 10:05 of the game, Redick scored 23 points, and finished with 30 after going 5-10 from three and 11-12 from the line. Duke rallied back to win the game, and crestfallen does not quite describe how Wolfpack fans felt. It's a good thing Twitter didn't exist back then.

I think this one game altered the trajectory Herb Sendek's life. Even though he stayed around for another few years and even finally made a sweet sixteen, this loss in particular hung over him. If he has the same level of success he had after this game, people would have been fine with it because he'd won the ACC title. It just means that much, and still does, even in the current era of expansion of muddling of conference histories.


#4: 2007

UNC 89 - NC State 80

Out goes Herb Sendek (left for Arizona State before he was likely to be fired), in comes Sidney Lowe. In his first year, Lowe finished 5-11 in the ACC, but one of those wins was against then-#3 UNC, so people were okay with the finish. The ACC had recently expanded to add in the former Big East teams. NC State came in as the 10-seed in the conference tournament (sound familiar?) and started things off by knocking off 7-seed and #21 Duke.

Okay, things are looking good, you've knocked off Duke and Carolina in the same year. NC State ended the run I described earlier of Duke's dominence in the ACC Tournament here in 2007. Everything is gravy from here on, right? We're just playing with house money. Again, the creep of expectations. NC State made their way past 2-seed UVA and 3-seed Virginia Tech. May I just say, for the record, how annoying it was at the time that these Big East teams came in and the likes of BC and VT were immediately in the top half of the league? I mean, the NERVE. Moving on.

Much like 2024, NC State as the 10-seed found its way to the championship game to play none other than top-seeded and #8 in the nation UNC. This was the newly resurgent UNC, that had meandered through the Matt Doherty era to have Roy Williams land in their lap, mana from heaven. They won the national championship two years prior (with Doherty's players, mind you), and here they won their first ACC title since 1998. It was such a long drought for them, I have the world's smallest violin for them. They had the most annoying player of all time, Tyler Hansbrough, Mr. I Lost My Contacts Again himself.

NC State gave fans just enough hope in this one, as they often do. They were down most of the game, but cut the lead to 70-69 with five minutes remaining. The score was relatively close the rest of the way, but ultimately the Pack ran out of steam and Caroline sealed the game at the line on their way to securing a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Lowe would never progress as far in the conference tournament again, but that was a fun run. He would wear his signature red blazer for luck, get it quickly dry cleaned each night after the win and have it back on the next day. The rest of the Lowe experience was unfortunately lackluster, and fans felt bad criticizing him because of his connection with the 1983 team and Jimmy V. So it was kind of awkward all around.



Well, let's review what we have learned:

  1. Being an NC State fan is hard slugging, so adjust expectations accordingly

  2. If you're going to play in the conference tournament finals, try and avoid Duke or UNC (whoops)

  3. I don't really have a third, this whole exercise made me sad.

Will history be repeated tonight, or will it be written? Though all of the above point to the former, let's hope for the latter. On the bright side, win or lose, Kevin Keatts has already made it further in the conference tournament than Mark Gottfried.

If you remember any of these games, sound off below with your memories and we can commiserate together.



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