Welcome to Raleigh, the New Epicenter of College Basketball

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For decades, Sammy’s Tap & Grill, a sports bar for fans of North Carolina State University, had a glaring problem: The school’s basketball teams did not win all that much. David Harris, one of the owners, would concoct creative specials in hopes of drawing customers on game days, but it didn’t matter. Few ever came.

“All of that has changed now,” Mr. Harris, 59, said the other day, his smile, like those of his patrons, seemingly permanent. “Can you believe it?”

The N.C. State women’s and men’s basketball teams are both in the Final Four. It is a sentence few in Raleigh believed they ever would utter. And to listen to them say it aloud this week was to hear the exhausted, sometimes tearful glee of an overjoyed fan base still in shock.

Their neighbors, after all, are basketball royalty. Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, each about 25 miles away, have won multiple national championships, and the North Carolina women’s team won it all in 1994. The two programs have one of the fiercest rivalries in college basketball.

Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest men’s player of all time, played for U.N.C. Duke can lay claim to Mike Krzyzewski, who won more games than any men’s coach in N.C.A.A. history.

Then there is N.C. State.

Students at Duke, which is in Durham, and U.N.C. have long labeled N.C. State their “little brother” — an uncompetitive, weaker sibling in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Sometimes, the trash talk feels like it extends beyond sports. Duke is a premier private university, and U.N.C. is the state’s public flagship, its oldest educational jewel and itself a top school. N.C. State is known for its robust agricultural and engineering curriculums, but it does not have the national allure of the other two.

Yet in the men’s tournament, the No. 1-seeded U.N.C., lost to Alabama in the Sweet 16. And Duke, a No. 4 seed, fell last weekend to none other than N.C. State.

“Now they can’t talk,” Tyler Sherman, a freshman at N.C. State, said of both teams as he decided between a gray and a red Final Four T-shirt at the university’s store on Tuesday.

Still, it has been an arduous journey for the Wolfpack. In the 1950s, the N.C. State men’s team was considered the best in the A.C.C., and for the next three decades, the rivalry between N.C. State and U.N.C. was the biggest in North Carolina, said Tim Peeler, who wrote a book on the team that won N.C. State’s last national title, in 1983.

A big setback occurred in 1989, when the N.C.A.A. placed the school’s basketball team on probation for two years and barred it from the 1990 tournament for violations that included the misuse of complimentary tickets and sneakers provided to the players.

Around that time, ESPN was taking off, and the U.N.C.-Duke rivalry was growing in intensity in the state partly because of their high-profile coaches, Mr. Peeler said.

The women’s team at N.C. State has been strong in recent years, but it had not made it this far since 1998. As for the men’s team, fans will admit they have had more than a few subpar seasons. They were, at best, mediocre during this year’s regular season, finishing 17-14. On campus, there were whispers that the head coach, Kevin Keatts, would be fired.

To even qualify for the N.C.A.A. Tournament, the men’s team had to win the A.C.C. Tournament, a feat that involved five straight wins for a team that had lost its last four regular-season games. It has kept winning ever since, beating Duke on Sunday and leaving fans thunderstruck.

“Crazy,” said Norman Downer, an N.C. State alumnus who graduated in 2014.

“Surreal,” said Trey Austin, 21, a sophomore, one of the hundreds of students proudly sporting a red A.C.C. championship shirt on campus this week.

“I’ve waited all my life,” said Bradley Turner, 26, of Raleigh, who spent more than $400 in recent days on Wolfpack merchandise.

This was a jubilance they had never experienced. It felt electric and fleeting, they said, like catching fireflies in a jar. The Wolfpack had arrived at their moment, wearing shirts and holding signs that underscored the surprise of their ascent: “I believe.” “Why not us?”

On Tuesday, hundreds gathered on campus to send off the women’s team. Tubas and trumpets roared. Some in the crowd had dyed locks of their hair red. As the players walked to their bus, fans chanted the names of their heroes.

“I love you Saniya!” one woman screamed, referring to guard Saniya Rivers.

They had heard from friends who went to Duke or U.N.C. about the long lines at games, the camping out for tickets, the prime time TV broadcasts. They had heard from alumni about the ’70s and ’80s, how N.C. State had been the team to beat then, and how it had started the tradition of cutting down the net as a souvenir of victory.

On the “basketball history” wall at Amedeo’s Italian Restaurant, where the celebrated former N.C. State men’s coach Jim Valvano used to dine regularly, every image and artifact dates at least to the 1980s. Championship sweaters from ’83 now go for around $75 at vintage markets.

Dereck Whittenburg, a guard for the team that won the 1983 title, said in an interview that he had seen it all in college basketball. But this current run, he said, felt “truly incredible.”

(One sports statistician put the men’s team’s chances of winning nine straight elimination games to make the Final Four at 10,314 to 1.)

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Mr. Whittenburg, 63, said.

Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, who graduated from U.N.C. and vividly remembers Mr. Whittenburg’s plays from decades ago, said in an interview that he was pulling for both Wolfpack teams. The women’s team, a No. 3 seed, will face South Carolina on Friday; the men will face Purdue on Saturday.

“It’s really hard to find anyone in North Carolina right now, regardless of who your team is, who is not for North Carolina State,” Mr. Cooper said.

Even Duke fans on campus this week, still smarting from their defeat on Sunday, admitted that they were rooting for the underdogs.

“It’s kind of cool that they’re having their comeback,” Tom Gigrich, a junior at Duke, said of N.C. State. “Obviously the loss sucks. But at least U.N.C. didn’t beat us. And honestly, I hope the best for them.”

A No. 11 seed in the men’s tournament, N.C. State is now the country’s Cinderella team, led by DJ Burns Jr., a 6-foot-9 center who has won Raleigh’s heart with his balletic moves and cheerful demeanor.

On Tuesday evening in Raleigh, roughly 1,000 people lined up outside an Applebee’s for a meet-and-greet with Burns and guard DJ Horne, N.C. State’s leading scorer.

Outside the restaurant, boys and girls scrawled “Wolfpack!” in red chalk on the sidewalk and stared into the restaurant’s windows, trying to catch a glimpse. People carried basketballs to be signed. Lily Mulhall, a freshman at N.C. State, said she brought a hubcap to get autographed because — well, it was a long story, but she considered it lucky.

Only a small number of fans managed to get inside and meet the players. Few appeared to care.

What mattered was that they were here, smiling at the ridiculousness of the crowd size as the sun set.

Word spread that the players would be exiting soon through the restaurant’s back door. Some fans had already gathered around it. One had climbed a tree for a better look. They raised their phones, preparing to snap and record so that they could one day remember.

A boy asked his father if they could stay a little longer and get a peek of the players. The father said it was fine.

Raleigh had already waited 40 years for scenes like this. What was 10 more minutes?


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