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.
The NC State-Maryland game was, by any standard, a classic. Each team went on a series of runs that kept a capacity crowd at Greensboro Coliseum and a regional television audience in a state of incredulous excitement. Maryland shot 61 percent and State 55 percent for the game. The action was exceedingly fast and fluid with few turnovers or personal fouls. At one point, referee Hank Nichols remarked as he ran past the scorer’s table, “Is this a great game or what?” All five Maryland starters scored in double figures. Burleson, who was angry at being relegated to second-team All-ACC in favor of Elmore, played the game of his life. He led State with 38 points and 13 rebounds.
With nine seconds to go in regulation, Maryland had the ball with the score tied at 97. But State played smothering defense and the Terrapins failed to get off a decent shot. In overtime, Maryland missed critical foul shots and Lucas threw an errant pass that helped State win, 103-100.
The difference in the game could well have been fatigue. It was the third game in three days for Maryland, and its starters had each played at least 38 minutes against North Carolina the previous evening. After the game, Driesell commented that Lucas was “physically exhausted.” Years later, Lucas narrated a tape of the game that showed him with the ball as Elmore came open near the basket during overtime. “I’m so tired,” he exclaimed. “And I throw it over his head.”
After its narrow victory, State went on to win the national championship. Maryland was ranked fourth in the final polls, and would now almost certainly be a number-one seed in the NCAA tournament. Sloan said later that “it was a tragedy a team of Maryland’s caliber wasn’t able to participate.” The NCAA tacitly agreed by expanding the field for the tournament in 1975 from 25 to 32 and opening it to more than one team per conference. The outcome of the 1974 ACC tournament was an important, perhaps decisive, consideration in the NCAA’s decision. The expansion of the NCAA tournament laid the foundations for what we now call “March Madness.”
The growth of the NCAA tournament benefited the ACC because of the across-the-board quality of its basketball programs. Since 1975, five of the ten ACC teams that have won the national championship did not win the league title. Despite the reduction in the stakes, it is a sad footnote that forty years after collaborating in the best game in conference history, Maryland will make its final appearance in the ACC tournament this year.
J. Samuel Walker is a prize-winning historian and author of several books, including ACC Basketball: The Story of the Rivalries, Traditions, and Scandals of the First Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference and Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs against Japan. He has been a devoted fan of ACC basketball for over 40 years.