NC State guard DJ Horne practices ahead of a Final...

NC State guard DJ Horne practices ahead of a Final Four college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, April 5, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz. North Carolina State plays Purdue. Credit: AP/Brynn Anderson

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 Friday.

“Coming back after the whole journey and everything like that, I would say that coming home (to N.C. State) there's been a lot of love and people showing me respect for my grind and my journey to get back to where I am now.”

Horne has been a perfect fit for the Wolfpack entering Saturday's game against Purdue in the national semifinals, N.C. State's first time on this stage since the “Cardiac Pack” title run of 1983 under the late Jim Valvano. He's been the explosive perimeter scorer as part of a 1-2 punch with burly March Madness star DJ Burns Jr. in the paint.

And his ties to Raleigh have positioned him to appreciate this moment as well as anybody could with N.C. State owning a spotlight it normally has to fight to share with nearby Atlantic Coast Conference rivals Duke and North Carolina.

NC State guard DJ Horne, left, and guard Dennis Parker...

NC State guard DJ Horne, left, and guard Dennis Parker Jr. exit their locker room after a media availability ahead of a Final Four college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz. NC State plays Purdue on Saturday. Credit: AP/Brynn Anderson

“Getting him back to Raleigh,” Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts said, “I thought that was very important.”

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.

“When we brought him in from Illinois State, we saw how productive he had been,” said Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley, a former Duke player. “I thought his game would translate, moving up a level from the mid-majors. And he didn't disappoint. DJ was a guy we never promised anything to when he came into our program, and he fought for it."

NC State guard DJ Horne speaks with reporters ahead of...

NC State guard DJ Horne speaks with reporters ahead of a Final Four college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz. NC State plays Purdue on Saturday. Credit: AP/Brynn Anderson

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,” 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, 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.

“He told me up front: ‘We’re going to need you to do this, we’re going to need you to lead, we’re going to need you to be the guy.' Me knowing my game, knowing what I wanted out of this year, I couldn’t pass up that opportunity."

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.

“It's a totally different day in college basketball because you are coaching experienced guys,” Justus said. “You are coaching guys that have been in situations. So it’s much more of a collaborative experience for both player and coach. ... When we got him here, it was a little bit of, 'Hey, this is your first year of professional basketball, you've got to treat that that way.'”

Horne has risen to that 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 of 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 Friday 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.”

SUBSCRIBE

Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months

ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME