Today we welcome a guest blog post from J. Samuel Walker, author of ACC Basketball: The Story of the Rivalries, Traditions, and Scandals of the First Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Since the inception of the Atlantic Coast Conference, intense rivalries, legendary coaches, gifted players, and fervent fans have come to define the league’s basketball history. Walker traces the traditions and the dramatic changes that occurred both on and off the court during the conference’s rise to a preeminent position in college basketball between 1953 and 1972.
As we gear up for the 2014 tournament season, Walker looks back 40 years to tell the story of one of the greatest games in the history of the ACC tournament.
Forty years ago in the ACC tournament finals, the North Carolina State Wolfpack and the University of Maryland Terrapins played a game that experts generally consider the best ever played in conference history. NC State was ranked number one in the country and Maryland was close behind at number four. The game was so memorable not only for the exceptional quality of play but also for the magnitude of the stakes. At that time, only one team per conference qualified for the NCAA tournament, and winning the ACC tournament was essential to compete for the national championship.
NC State, coached by Norm Sloan, was led by Tom Burleson, a gifted 7’2” center, Monte Towe, a guard with magical ball-handling skills, and David Thompson, who was so good that Boston Celtics coach Tom Heinsohn rated him as a 10 on a 5-point scale. The Wolfpack placed first in the regular season standings with a 12-0 record. The ACC then had seven teams, and the regular season champions received a bye in the first round of the tournament.
Maryland, coached by Lefty Driesell, had lost to NC State five consecutive times, but coaches and players from both teams knew that the Terrapins had the ability to end the streak. The team was talented, experienced, and confident. It featured center Len Elmore, an intimidating defender and rebounder, forward Tom McMillen, a second-team All-American in 1973, and guards John Lucas and Maurice Howard, who were excellent scorers and playmakers.
Maryland finished the regular season with a 9-3 conference record and tied for second with North Carolina, which ranked sixth in the country. To win the ACC and advance to the NCAAs, either team would have to win three games. During the season Sloan had stressed the importance of gaining an edge by earning the bye, and his players had worked hard for the advantage of sitting out the first round.
Maryland and North Carolina won their first-round games easily to set up a head-to-head confrontation. In what Maryland assistant coach Dave Pritchett called a “hate game” between evenly matched rivals, the Terrapins won in a rout, 105-85. NC State beat Virginia to advance to the finals.
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