- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

In a grim and gallant struggle that might rank as the finest in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 21-year history …

— The Washington Star,

March 10, 1974

Rarely are sportswriters accused of understatement, but I must belatedly plead guilty for banging out that lead under deadline pressure late on the night of March9, 1974, at Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum.

Possibly the finest game in ACC history? Thirty years later, most veteran observers of campus hoops still rate N.C. State’s 103-100 overtime victory against Maryland as the best in college basketball history.

One reason is that the game was oh so fraught with meaning. Not only did the result earn N.C. State the ACC tournament title and point the Wolfpack toward their first national championship, it kept a 23-5 Maryland team out of March Madness altogether. Odd as it seems now, only the tournament champion represented the conference in what was then a 25-team NCAA field. So the proud Terrapins turned down a bid to the NIT, which they had won two years earlier, and accepted their role as one of the best teams ever to miss the NCAAs.

Fittingly, the NCAA expanded its tournament field to 32 the following year, and a weaker Maryland team came within one game of the Final Four, losing to Louisville in the Midwest Region championship. But making the Big Dance was no consolation to members of the 1973-74 Terps, nor was the fact that their Wolfpack conquerors lost only one game (by 18 points to UCLA in December) during a season climaxed by a postseason title run conducted solely in North Carolina.

However, Maryland coach Lefty Driesell, now retired after winning 786 games in a 41-year college coaching career, denies the historic loss to N.C. State was his most painful.

“No, not really,” Driesell said from his Virginia Beach home last week. “I was more disappointed in some games where we won but didn’t play well. Mostly, I was disappointed for our players, that they didn’t get a chance to play probably UCLA for the national championship.

“You know, we played great against N.C. State — I thought we were just as good as they were. But we had to play three games in the ACC tournament, and they played only two [because of a first-round bye as regular-season champion]. That probably contributed to our being more tired in the overtime. But I didn’t mind losing when our guys played well. Heck, I was rooting for them to win the national title because that would have made us look better.”

Maryland’s team that season was loaded, to say the least. Its linchpins were seniors Tom McMillen and Len Elmore, the two frontcourt stars who had boosted Lefty’s legions from mediocrity to might during their three varsity seasons. And the point guard was slick sophomore John Lucas, who would became the first player selected in the 1976 NBA Draft (by the Houston Rockets) and later coached three NBA teams.

N.C. State’s key man, of course, was David Thompson, arguably the best player in ACC history. Soaring to heights previously unimagined in that pre-Jordan era and scoring points by the bucketful, he led the Wolfpack to a 27-0 record as a junior in 1972-73 — and also to frustration. N.C. State was ineligible for postseason play because of violations committed during its recruitment of Thompson, but the following year there were no such restrictions. Over the two seasons, the Wolfpack went 57-1 while Thompson averaged 24.9 points.

After Maryland routed Duke by 19 points and North Carolina by a shocking 20 to gain the 1974 ACC tournament final, the issue seemed simple: Could the Terps contain Thompson? Many expected Maryland to try a box-and-one defense, though Driesell rarely played anything but man-to-man. “Let them try a box-and-one,” Wolfpack coach Norm Sloan snarled. “Duke tried that, and all David did was score 40.”

As it turned out, Thompson wasn’t N.C. State’s big man. That distinction, literally and figuratively, went to gawky, 7-foot-4 center Tom Burleson, who made 18 of 25 shots from the floor, scored 24 points in the second half and had his career game with a total of 38 points — 20 above his average.

“My job was to play zone in the middle whenever Thompson got the ball and not let him penetrate, so Burleson was always in a deep position,” recalled Elmore, now a sports attorney in New York and TV basketball analyst. “It isn’t easy to stop a great player like Tommy, especially when he’s 7-4 [9 inches taller than Elmore]. Tommy never did much against me before that night, and I guess it was just his turn.”

Nonetheless, Maryland stunned the partisan Carolina crowd by hitting 12 of its first 14 shots and snatching a 25-12 lead after six minutes. N.C. State narrowed the gap to 55-50 at halftime and went in front 97-93 with two minutes left in regulation. Baskets by Tom Roy and Elmore got the Terps even, and they had a chance to win it when an interception by McMillen gave Maryland possession in the closing seconds.

Streaking downcourt, 6-3 guard Mo Howard decided against trying to shoot over Burleson and passed back to Lucas. Unfortunately for Maryland, Luke rushed a too-short shot that got swatted away by Burleson as time expired with the score 97-97.

In an anticlimactic overtime, both teams appeared weary from the tension. Lucas missed a one-and-one that could have put the Terps ahead, and Phil Spence responded with an uncontested jumper that sent N.C. State into the lead to stay 101-99. Wolfpack point guard Monte Towe made two free throws with six seconds left to clinch the win.

The victory ran N.C. State’s record to 25-0 as fourth-ranked Maryland saw a 12-game winning streak snapped and became the first team to lose three consecutive ACC tournament finals. Thus, the generally glittering McMillen-Elmore era in College Park ended in sadness rather than euphoria. Over the pair’s three seasons, the Terps won 73 of 90 games but failed to capture their first ACC title since 1958.

After the game, the fiery Driesell showed real class by climbing on the N.C. State team bus to tell Burleson, “You played the best game a big man has ever played against me. Now go ahead and win the NCAA tournament for all of us in the ACC.”

A short time later, Lefty told the media, “We’ve got to be the No.1 and No.2 teams in the country. I know I’ll vote for us as No.2 [in the coaches’ poll].”

Sloan was equally gracious, saying, “You’ll never see anybody better than Maryland. I couldn’t be prouder of our team.”

That loss was only the first of two major setbacks for the Lefthander in 1974. He appeared to rebound brilliantly that summer by inducing Petersburg, Va., center Moses Malone — the nation’s bluest blue-chip prospect — to attend Maryland. A short time later, however, Malone changed his mind and signed with the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association.

Three decades later, the Maryland-N.C. State ACC title game of 1974 remains in the minds and hearts of anyone who saw it. If you know a Terps or Wolfpack fan of some age, all you have to do is say “103-100” and wait for a smile to broaden or tears to flow.

“It’s amazing how many people saw the game, either then or on ESPN Classic, and want to talk about it,” Elmore said. “I don’t mind at all — I’m proud to have been a part of it.”

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