Mineola’s O’Connell enjoying incredible ride with N.C. State hoops in Final Four

Mineola’s O’Connell enjoying incredible ride with N.C. State hoops in Final Four
A shirt now on sale commemorating former Chaminade star Michael O'Connell's game-tying 3-pointer that kept N.C. State's season alive. Photo credit: seryldatee.com

Under almost any other circumstance, the travel habits and itinerary of Tim O’Connell the last few weeks would seem strange. Maybe even arouse suspicion.

But the last few weeks have been unlike any other circumstance of O’Connell’s life, and the life of his immediate family.

The longtime Mineola resident and youth sports coach has been traveling around America, buying only one-way tickets on trains and airplanes, and booking one-night stays in hotels.

First, it was Washington, D.C. Then Pittsburgh. Then Dallas. And now, Phoenix.

One-way itineraries, only.

He does this because he didn’t know how long he’d be staying at each place, watching his youngest son finish off his college basketball career in a way not even Spielberg could’ve dreamed up. And also, now he’s doing it because, well, superstition is a powerful thing, especially when it works.

O’Connell’s son, Michael is a Stanford graduate and former player for the Cardinals, who last spring transferred to North Carolina State for one more season of life as a college athlete.

And now, improbably, impossibly, Michael O’Connell and his teammates are in the Final Four.

Even writing it, it doesn’t seem real.

After an under .500 regular season record in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Wolfpack won five consecutive games in five days at the ACC Tournament, highlighted by O’Connell’s miraculous, banked-in tying three-pointer at the end of regulation against Virginia in the semifinals.

N.C. State won that game, then the next night against top-seeded North Carolina to get an unlikely bid to the NCAA Tournament.

And once they got in, the 11th-seeded Wolfpack have been unstoppable.

Four straight wins, with O’Connell’s veteran leadership helping lead the way (he’s averaged 10.2 points and 4.1 assists during the nine-game winning streak) have placed N.C. State into the national semifinals.

Their players, like O’Connell and gregarious center D.J. Burns, are suddenly national celebrities, a part of the best story in sports right now.

Saturday in Arizona they’ll try to keep this incredible run alive by beating Purdue.

And in the stands, with no return ticket bought, will be Tim, wife Tara, oldest son Thomas, and as many relatives as can make it to the desert.

“It’s surreal, is the word I keep coming back to,” Tim O’Connell said by phone Wednesday. “It’s been one thing after another, and more and more people have gotten interested and gotten excited, and now reporters are calling me and everyone in town says they’re watching and it’s just … it’s surreal.”

“It’s hard to describe, because every time they come to a game and you think, ‘OK, this one is going to be the end of the line,’ they find a way to win again,” said former Chaminade coach Bob Paul, who coached O’Connell. “They just find a way to keep it going and it’s because Michael and his teammates are so clutch.”

It’s been surreal for everyone in the O’Connell orbit. Thomas, a three-time Final Four participant in lacrosse at Maryland and a 2017 national champion, said the family didn’t have high hopes on March 12, when No. 10 seed N.C. State played Louisville in the opening round of the ACC Tourney, and needed to rally in the final minute to win.

“You just want him to have a good experience and just hoping for one more day,” said Thomas, who’s now an assistant coach in lacrosse and basketball at Chaminade. “And then they win once, and then a second time, and it starts building and building.”

By the time N.C. State got to the semis on Friday night, March 15, 50 family members packed the MCI Center in the nation’s capital. And still, Tim O’Connell had the car packed and ready to head back up north after the game.

That night the dozens of O’Connells they saw the Wolfpack go down three with less than 10 seconds to go, and Virginia’s best foul shooter, Isaac McNeely, on the line.

“I told everyone this kid is like a 90% foul shooter, and if he makes this shot, game’s over,” Tim O’Connell said. “And then he missed.”

The next few seconds will be immortalized in N.C. State lore forever, including on the T-shirt that accompanies this story: O’Connell dribbled down the court furiously, and stopped and popped from in front of the Wolfpack bench.

The ball soared so high it left the TV frame, then bounced high off the backboard and rolled around the rim before settling through the twine.

“I have to tell the truth, I fell asleep during the game,” Paul said with a rueful chuckle. “And when I woke up I looked at my phone and I had hundreds of texts on the group chat of former players I’m on. It was just incredible.”

N.C. State had life, and the miracle run continues. Wins over Texas Tech, Oakland University, Marquette and Duke have put the Wolfpack in the Final Four for the first time since 1983.

Michael O’Connell, who played three years at Chaminade before transferring to Blair Academy in N.J. for a final year, has been a multi-sport star in Mineola since he was a kid.

Lacrosse was his first love, as he dreamed of following in his brother’s footsteps to Maryland, but basketball runs in the family blood, with aunts, uncles and grandparents all playing college ball (Michael’s great-uncle, Andrew O’Connell, even got a shout out CBS’ Bill Raftery Sunday on the air.)

His Stanford career didn’t lead to much success, but he did get a degree in three years and decided to try his luck at N.C. State this year.

And now this unlikely ride has galvanized his hometown, where watch parties have occurred at Cornerstone Bar in Mineola, where elementary school kids are making “good luck” signs for O’Connell, and former coaches like Paul and current Chaminade head coach Dan Feeney say things like “no one deserves it more than Michael” and “he’s the best kid I ever coached.”

I just want him to enjoy this and step out of the whirlwind for a minute, he really seems to be taking a moment and doing that,” Thomas O’Connell said. “He’s been signing every autograph, posing for every picture, just soaking it all in.”

The national championship game is Monday night.

Tim O’Connell hopes he’s not shopping for a ticket home until then.

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