- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

“People used to say we were a circus team. We had the midget, the giant, the high-flying guy. But we were more than that.”

David Thompson

They certainly were much more. N.C. State’s 1973-74 Wolfpack ended the season as NCAA basketball champions two days after shocking perennial champ UCLA 80-77 in a double-overtime Final Four semifinal thriller.

The midget (5-foot-7 Monte Towe), the giant (7-2 Tom Burleson) and the high-flying guy (Thompson) led the Wolfpack to a 57-1 record over two seasons. But the one loss was an 84-66 clobbering by UCLA in December 1973. When the teams met three months later in the Final Four semifinals, the Bruins were favored to win again on the way to a 10th national title.

Yet State had three things in its favor: confidence, motivation and practically a homecourt advantage. The Final Four was at the Greensboro Coliseum, where the Wolfpack had beaten Maryland two weeks earlier to win the ACC tournament in an overtime thriller that some still call the greatest college game ever played. In fact, State’s entire postseason was in its home state.

The previous season, the Wolfpack went 27-0 but were ineligible for postseason play because of recruiting violations in the pursuit of Thompson. As if that weren’t inspiration enough, the Wolfpack weren’t impressed by UCLA despite the lopsided December loss. Sure the Bruins had won seven straight NCAA titles and Wooden was widely hailed as the Wizard of Westwood. But so what?

“[The December loss] helped us,” Burleson reflected many years later. “That first time [we played them], we were amazed. After that we weren’t in awe. And I don’t think they realized how good David Thompson was.”

That was very good indeed. Thompson, a 6-4 junior forward who could soar into the stratosphere, was voted the best player of the ACC’s first 50 years three decades later. Burleson put it this way: “David elevated the game of basketball. He was an unstoppable player. David was N.C. State basketball.”

In the UCLA loss, Thompson scored just 17 points to 27 for the man he was guarding, Keith Wilkes. Yet Wolfpack coach Norman Sloan, who liked to wear yellow pants on the sideline and whose wife sang the national anthem before home games at Raleigh’s Reynolds Coliseum, also was upbeat about the rematch.

“We’re more versatile than UCLA,” Sloan said. “We have something left. And we still have Thompson. I like our chances.”

Understandably, the Final Four focus was on that game as Burleson prepared to jump center against UCLA superstar Bill Walton in the second NCAA semifinal on the drizzly afternoon of March 23, 1974. After Marquette licked Kansas in the first game, coach Al McGuire joked to reporters, “We’ll just answer a few questions so you guys can go watch the ‘championship game.’”

Walton, the 6-10 All-American center who had made 21 of 22 shots and scored 44 points in the national championship game against Memphis State a year earlier, was seeking to end his career with a third national title. And, Burleson said, the redheaded superstar didn’t seem to have much respect for the Wolfpack.

“He had been going around saying UCLA’s backup centers, Ralph Drollinger and Swen Nater, were better than me,” Burleson said. “He was a West Coast guy, and I was from the South — two different cultures. I think what he really thought was that we were a true threat to them.”

Or maybe not. The day before the game, Walton told reporters, a la Joe Namath, “We won’t lose.”

Perhaps his coach wasn’t as sure. This was not one of Wooden’s better teams despite its 26-3 record. The Bruins had an 88-game winning streak snapped by Notre Dame in January, lost to Oregon State and Oregon late in the season and needed three overtimes to defeat Dayton in their first NCAA tournament game.

“We were a better team physically than in the two previous seasons but did not play as good basketball,” Wooden said. “They weren’t as coachable.”

And so the Bruins and Wolfpack got it on with a nation watching. The teams traded leads in a first half that ended 35-35. But early in the second, UCLA spurted to an 11-point advantage as the partisan crowd groaned. Then State roared back behind a trapping defense that forced the normally poised Bruins into numerous errors.

With the score tied 65-65, Tim Stoddard (later a relief pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles) had a chance to win it for the Wolfpack at the buzzer but missed a jumper. State worked time off the clock for most of the first overtime before Towe missed a shot at the end. And once again State appeared finished when UCLA jumped to a 74-67 lead in the second overtime.

“But we wouldn’t quit — we took the fight to them,” Towe recalled.

Closing to 76-75, State turned to Thompson, who hit a shot and added two free throws moments later. When Towe sank two more free throws, it was all over.

Walton finished with 29 points and 18 rebounds but, Burleson said, “he lost his composure in overtime. At one point, he cocked the ball behind his head, and I stole it and laid it in.”

Burleson had 20 points and 14 points, holding his own against Walton just as he had against Maryland’s Len Elmore in the ACC championship. Said Thompson, who atoned for his sub-par performance in the first meeting with 28 points: “I had nothing to prove personally, but we did as a team.”

Wooden accepted defeat graciously, saying, “We have nothing to be ashamed of — we lost to a great team.”

Walton was less complimentary. Almost 30 years later, he admitted, “I still have nightmares about that game.”

Burleson, of course, has nothing but sweet dreams.

“People remember winners,” he told writer Chip Alexander. “For the 1974 champion, it says, ‘N.C. State.’ To do it we had to beat the best — and we proved it could be done.”

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