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DJ Burns bruises NC State into the NCAA Tournament, and March Madness will be his next big chance

WASHINGTON (AP) — With the shot clock running out, DJ Burns Jr. found himself much farther from the basket than a 6-foot-9, 275-pound big man should be. He stepped back and made the first 3-pointer in his 160th college game.

“Crazy,” he said. “I'll take it.”

More often than that, Burns is bruising inside and did plenty of that in getting North Carolina State in the NCAA Tournament by beating fourth-ranked North Carolina on Saturday night for an unexpected automatic bid. After helping the Wolfpack win the program's first ACC Tournament since 1987 — 13 years before he was born — Burns' next trick will be with the nation watching during March Madness.

The Wolfpack are the 11th seed and will face No. 6 seed Texas Tech in the South Region on Thursday.

“Obviously a great talent all year in the ACC, and he’s been getting it done and going to work,” teammate Michael O'Connell said. “For teams that haven’t played him yet and aren’t used to how he plays and his playing style, I think he can do a lot of damage as long as he just lets the game come to him.”

That's what Burns did against UNC, putting up 20 points and matching a career best with seven assists. He repeatedly backed down Tar Heels fifth-year senior Armando Bacot inside and scoring.

“I just allowed him to catch the ball where he really wanted to,” Bacot said. “When he gets it at that point, it’s really tough to guard him.”

NC State forward Ben Middlebrooks went a step further, saying of Burns, “When he gets going, there’s no one in the country who can stop him.”

Burns, who's 23, in his fifth college season and second at NC State, had only attempted 10 3-pointers before, counting his three years at Winthrop. He has made a few in practice and warmups, so it didn't come as a total shocker to those around him.

“To really step up and knock that down in the ACC championship, that’s a big shot for him,” said O'Connell, who banked in a tying 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime in the semifinals against Virginia. “He has all the confidence in the world, so I’m not surprised he made it.”

After watching the 3-pointer go in, Casey Morsell started thinking, “We’re destined.”

But Burns did far more than make that one shot, going 9 for 12 from the floor. Forward Mohamed Diarra told Burns before the final Saturday that all he had to do to be the best player on the court was to show up and have a big game.

“He did,” Diarra said. “He responded.”

Burns, who shimmied back down the court after his 3 and flexed toward the crowd from the bench in the final minutes, got through 28 minutes in NC State's fifth game in as many days as the Wolfpack became the second double-digit seed to win any conference tournament.

Asked about shouldering the weight of NC State's fan base for winning the program's first ACC Tournament title in 37 years, Burns kept smiling and responded, “I'd say that’s what I’m big for.”

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball