Purdue cruises past N.C. State to advance to national title game

GLENDALE, Ariz. — DJ Horne has taken a long road to the Final Four.

The 6-foot-2, 180-pound guard has been the undersized, unoffered recruit out of North Carolina State’s base of Raleigh. He’s been the strong mid-major performer for two years at Illinois State, followed by the reliable scorer at power-conference program Arizona State.

And now, he’s the twice-over homecoming star: playing a lone season with the Wolfpack to net the most improbable of Final Four runs that has brought him back to the state of Arizona, less than an hour from his previous college stop with the Sun Devils.

“Everybody has their own path,” Horne said yesterday.

The player that’s getting this shot now is very different from the one who left North Carolina as a three-star recruit to play for the Redbirds of the Missouri Valley Conference. He took a second-year jump in production there to average 15.1 points in 2020-21 while shooting 44.6% from the field and 42.4% from 3-point range, making him an attractive player just in time for NCAA legislation clearing the way for players to transfer without having to sit out at a new school.

That ultimately led Horne to Arizona State.

Horne averaged 12.5 points while starting 62 games over two seasons for the Sun Devils, including their return to March Madness after missing two straight NCAA fields. Horne also came up big in Arizona State’s lone tournament game, crossing over defender Rondel Walker to create some space and then burying a straightaway 3-pointer to tie the game with 15.6 seconds left and finishing with a team-high 17 points in a narrow loss to TCU.

“DJ’s a fighter, he believes in himself,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said. “Like a lot of small guards, he plays with a chip on a shoulder. When he gets going and starts making a couple shots, man, you better look out because he’s a dangerous guy. I think his confidence grows, his belief grows.”

Across the country around that time, Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts was looking for backcourt help as he retooled the roster after the loss of high-scoring duo Jarkel Joiner and Terquavion Smith. Horne’s development was perfectly timed. He became the top addition for the Wolfpack, who had reached the NCAAs last season.

“Coming in, (Keatts) basically gave me the keys, man,” Horne said.

Joel Justus, a Wolfpack assistant coach who works with the guards, said Horne arrived with confident polish, strengthened through building successful seasons at the mid-major and then the power-conference levels to appear in 159 college games.

Horne has risen to the challenge, averaging a team-high 16.8 points with multiple big showings during N.C. State’s nine-game surge that led to an ACC Tournament title (the first since 1987) and this improbable Final Four trip. The highlight was his 29 points in the ACC title game to take down eventual No. 1 NCAA regional seed North Carolina, then coming through with 39 points and six 3-pointers in the wins against Marquette and Duke — the second of this March surge against the Blue Devils — that advanced the 11th-seeded Wolfpack out of the South bracket.

It’s a run that has harkened back to the Wolfpack’s miracle run 41 years earlier, earning 2024 a place in Wolfpack lore alongside 1983 and the 1974 squad that won the national championship — a run that included beating UCLA in the Final Four to end John Wooden’s run of seven straight championships.

Horne admitted he had allowed himself to dream a bit as he left Arizona State last year about the possibility of returning to the state to play in the Final Four. That’s exactly what he was doing yesterday as the Wolfpack took the court for its open practice, breaking into big smiles and bobbing his head along with music from the Wolfpack band during the festive event.

Like with everything else, Horne gets to savor that wrinkle, too.

“I was already planning on coming back out here to visit my guys and everything,” Horne said. “But expenses-paid trip and the Final Four, it doesn’t get any better than that. Just to see that it came full circle and it’s right here in front of my face now, I’m ready to take advantage of it.”

First appeared on www.nbcnews.com

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