Burns, NC State win 'boxing match' over Oakland

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PITTSBURGH — After defeating March’s newest folk heroes, NC State’s DJ Burns Jr., a Paul Bunyan figure in his own right, stood in the locker room wearing a silver chain around his neck.

At the end of the chain, a pendant of a sparkling yellow sunshine peeking from behind a rain cloud brushed the red “N.C. State” screen-printed across his chest. Burns bought the chain and the gem-encrusted medallion from a store in Raleigh, North Carolina, this year. It’s a reminder, Burns said earlier this week, to always stay positive in the face of adversity.

And it’s a mantra that Burns repeated to himself often throughout his 24-point, 11-rebound performance in the 79-73 overtime win against Oakland on Saturday night that sent NC State to its first Sweet 16 since 2015. Afterward, Burns grinned and nodded at the postgame dais as his coach called the game a “boxing match.”

“It’s one of those games where I had the choice to get in my feelings about getting fouled or continue to play hard,” Burns said. “I just hit a point where I was like, I just gotta ignore it because it’s not going away. So I just wanted to try my best to keep going for my guys.”

The big man, who transferred to NC State from Winthrop before the 2022 season, banged in the post all night with Oakland’s Trey Townsend, the Horizon League’s Player of the Year, and Chris Conway, battling against double and triple teams as the Golden Grizzlies tried to claw to a second upset victory. As a team, NC State outscored Oakland in the paint 36-24.

And Burns, with a significant size advantage at 6-foot-9, 275-pounds, fought through the contact for NC State’s first NCAA tournament 20-point double-double since 1991 — and just the second of his season. He also added four assists, often passing the ball out to a shooter freed up by the defensive crush around him in the post.

Burns also became the first NC State player to score at least 20 points and 10 rebounds with over 40 minutes played in an NCAA tournament game since David Thompson and Tom Burleson in the NC State’s double-overtime 1974 national semifinals victory over UCLA, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

“It’s so tough to referee him, and he probably gets fouled more than anybody, and I’m not saying these officials or any other officials,” Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts said. “He’s got no choice. Very seldom do you see him get to the free throw line when you can make a case that every other possession that he touches the basketball he gets fouled. And so we’ve talked about the maturity of it. It’s like, what are you going to do? I mean, you don’t like it, you get a technical foul. Just move on and just play through contact, and I think that’s where he’s matured.”

Tied with the No. 14 seed midway through the second half, Burns bullied his way to the rim to take a two-point lead — and he was fouled on the shot by Conway, setting up his first trip to the free throw line. As the official blew the whistle and signaled the foul, Burns stared down the camera at the base of the basket as NC State fans roared around him and the Wolfpack cheerleaders to his right exploded.

It was a moment of relief, validation and dominance all rolled into one — a microcosm of the whirlwind journey his team has been on since coming back to beat Louisville in the first round of the ACC tournament to kick-start the Wolfpack’s postseason tear of seven wins in 12 days.

And after that seventh win Saturday night, Burns was asked if he had a message for the people who doubted him and his team. As he pondered his response, his coach cautioned him with a grin and a word of advice: “Be nice, Burns.”

“I’m just saying welcome back,” Burns said. “They didn’t really believe in us. They probably still don’t but that doesn’t matter to us. We’re just going to stay together. If you’re supporting us, thank you. If not, that’s what it is.”

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