ACC's NCAA dominance began when State toppled a dynasty
Posted April 3, 2014
As the ACC began its third decade in 1974, its basketball prowess was a matter of much debate.
Seventeen years had passed since North Carolina brought the conference its lone national championship. During that span, ACC teams reached the Final Four eight times, but advanced to the championship game in just two of those eight trips. Duke in 1964 and UNC in 1968 lost those title games by wide margins. And while conferences like the SEC and Big 10 earned automatic byes to the NCAA’s Regional Tournaments, the ACC was forced to play a first-round game (which it lost on more than one occasion) until 1962.
ACC fans, long frustrated by the domination of Ohio State, Cincinnati and especially UCLA, viewed 1974 with a sense of optimism. The NCAA had awarded the Final Four to the city of Greensboro. The Eastern Regionals would be played at Reynolds Coliseum. UCLA Coach John Wooden and star Bill Walton would have to come to North Carolina to battle for this championship, If only the ACC could produce a worthy contender.
For the chance to challenge UCLA
NC State, with the great David Thompson, appeared to be that contender. But the Wolfpack lost to UCLA in December by almost 20 points, in a game where Walton sat out 19 minutes with foul trouble.
North Carolina, with superb defender Bobby Jones and freshman star Walter Davis, did not lose a single non-conference regular season game, and spent most of the year ranked among the nation’s elite.
Maryland, sometimes mocked for not becoming the “UCLA of the East” as promised by coach Lefty Driesell, nearly beat the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion in the season opener. By season’s end, the Terrapins were playing as well as anyone in the country.
During the 60s and 70s, players talked about the ACC Tournament being more important than the NCAA Tournament. Only the ACC Tournament Champion would move on to the NCAA, and incidentally, during the era when the NCAA invited only one team from each conference to play in its tournament, the ACC was alone among major conferences in staging a tournament to determine its NCAA representative.
So for NC State, UNC and Maryland, the opportunity of a lifetime, the chance to play UCLA in the east, would ride on the events of March 8 and March 9. NC State roared through the regular season without an ACC loss, and easily won a spot in the ACC Tournament finale. North Carolina and Maryland would play for the other spot.
UNC Coach Dean Smith referred to Maryland as “the Five Pros,” because he felt like all of the Terps’ starters could play in the NBA. The teams had split during the regular season, but Maryland shot a blistering 63 percent in the ACC semifinals, to rout the nationally ranked Tar Heels 105-85. It was perhaps the finest five man offensive performance the ACC Tournament had ever seen. Until the next night.
March 9, 1974
Forty years later, I still find words completely inadequate to describe what took place that Saturday evening at the Greensboro Coliseum. Here you had two of the top three teams in the country, playing for the opportunity to take on UCLA in the same building two weeks down the road, and yet the season would come to an abrupt end for one of the contenders. This was the ultimate elimination game. The anticipation was great. The pressure was enormous. Still, the quality of play transcended all else.
Playing for the third straight day, Maryland jumped out to a double-digit lead. State found it difficult to defend “the Five Pros.” They all could score, and all would score in double figures.
But Maryland’s Len Elmore had stoked the emotional fire of NC State center Tom Burleson. Elmore had told reporters that his nomination to the All-ACC team ahead of Burleson was proof that he was the best center in the league.
I’ve always considered Elmore to be one of the league’s best ever post-defenders. But that night Burleson hung 38 points on him, making 18 of 25 from the field with an assortment of shots the Terrapins even collectively could not defend.
A most incredible night
The teams traded baskets and piled up points. The score climbed into the 70s, 80s, 90s.
Maryland got the ball last and John Lucas found Mo Howard open in the corner with time running out. But Howard, who had made 10 of 15 shots on the night, kicked the ball back out. Lucas put up a desperation 25 footer, but it was off the mark and the horn sounded. The score was 97-97 at the end of regulation! Most teams could play six overtimes and not score 97 points.
Understandably, the tempo slowed in the final five minutes. State took a 101-100 lead. Lucas, from Hillside High School in Durham, one of the finest two-sport athletes the state of North Carolina has ever produced, missed a one-and-one for the Terps. Perhaps he was feeling the pressure, or the effect of playing 117 of Maryland’s 125 tournament minutes on back-to-back-to-back nights. The Terrapins fouled Monte Towe, who didn’t miss. The Wolfpack, more relieved than anything else, celebrated a 103-100 win.
That Maryland team held opponents during the 1974 season to 40 percent from the field, an astounding figure in that era. On this night, NC State shot 55 percent. Even more incredibly, Maryland shot 61 percent. Both teams played good defense; there were few fouls and even fewer turnovers.
That left the crowd emotionally drained
The late Bill Currie, who called UNC’s games in the 1960s, once described the Tar Heels’ comeback win in the 1969 ACC Championship by saying “it left the crowd emotionally drained. And some among the faithful had to go to the local watering hole and indulge in spirituous liquors to get their hearts started.”
Currie’s comment could have been applied to the 1974 title game-fourfold. I have personally never experienced the postgame stress I felt that night.
To me the game of March 9 has a unique standing. Yes, there have been many other great college basketball championship games. But I would argue that there has never been one better played with stakes so high.
This unquestionably was Driesell’s best Maryland team. But with a 25-team NCAA Tournament that allowed only one entrant per league, the Terrapins’ great season was over. After the game, a disappointed Driesell boarded the NC State team bus to congratulate the Wolfpack on the victory.
“I hope y’all go all the way,” he told them. He might have been speaking for the rest of the ACC as well.
Two weeks until UCLA visits
NC State’s date with destiny was not yet assured. There remained two games to be played in the Eastern Regionals against Providence and Pittsburgh. The Wolfpack depended heavily on Thompson, Towe and Burleson. Playing in friendly Reynolds Coliseum, the Pack cruised past Marvin Barnes and Providence. The Pittsburgh game, however, created a huge hurdle for State’s championship dreams.
He landed on another man’s shoulders
I decided to tell my young granddaughter the story, one day when we were bouncing a basketball on the playground. She stared at the rim and remarked, “That basket sure is high.” Remembering how the 6’4" David Thompson once soared effortlessly well above the rim, I gave her some perspective.
“Hannah,” I said, “Back in the seventies there was a player who could jump so high he landed on another man’s shoulder.”
Perceptive, even at four years old, Hannah looked at me with great skepticism. But the next morning her father confirmed my story. And when Hannah was a little older I showed her the video tape of DT’s great leap. It really happened.
My seat during the ’74 Eastern Regional was in the end zone, under the NC State basket. Pitt played “the Amoeba Defense,” a kind of match-up zone, but the Panthers closed out hard on jump shooters. They hacked Thompson on the arm. No foul. He looked frustrated. Next time down the floor. Thompson shot. The Panthers hacked his arm a second time. Again no foul. Now David was angry. And when David got angry, he wouldn’t yell or throw an elbow. David would simply jump higher.
Thompson took off recklessly
Thompson told me years later he took off recklessly down the court trying to block the Panthers’ ensuing shot. He was going to send it into the fifteenth row. This was a guy who had a 44-inch standing vertical leap who this time prefaced his takeoff with an all-out sprint. Thompson blocked the shot alright.
And that’s the last thing he remembers from that sequence of events. He landed on the shoulders of Phil Spence and fell immediately on the back of his head. It was the most violent collision I’ve ever seen at a college basketball game.
Crowd fell silent after Thompson's fall
In our 1999 WRAL documentary “Reynolds Remembered,” Spence graciously re-enacted the scene. “I felt this foot on my shoulder,” he began. “Then bam. David goes flying head-first on the floor. I looked down and he wasn’t moving. I thought, 'Oh, my God. I have killed David Thompson.'”
The late Norm Sloan said, “It was just the most awful thing.”
The Wolfpack coach confided that Thompson’s mother had confessed a worry. She told Sloan: He jumps so high, one day he might take a terrible fall.
Thompson was wheeled away on a stretcher. He didn’t move, and no one in the crowd of 12,000-plus made a sound.
Soon after Thompson’s arrival at Rex Hospital, Slona recalled, the staff received a phone call from the legendary Walter Kronkite. The CBS news anchor had been watching the game on television, and wanted to get a report on Thompson’s condition.
Return brought spirit, fans back to Pack
State held the lead against Pitt after Thompson’s departure, but now Sloan had a new problem. His team didn’t want to play. The coach found himself constantly prodding his players to go win the game, saying, “David would want you to do this.”
Burleson also remembers his team’s disarray. “We went out to break their backs,” he later told me, the fierce look in his eyes underscoring how clearly he remembered the moment. “They had killed our superstar, or so we thought.”
P.A. announcer C.A. Dillon delivered the good news at halftime. “The doctors tell us David will be OK.”
The doctors even allowed Thompson to go back and watch the second half. It’s still one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen – this star player who appeared to be critically injured or worse was WALKING back into Reynolds Coliseum with a huge bandage around his head. As Dillon said in a later interview, it was like a conquering hero returning home from the war.
For some in the crowd it was something of a religious experience, the beloved David Thompson, feared dead, now walking back to the NC State bench. Only Sloan didn’t see him. All he noticed was that suddenly his team sprinted off the floor. He thought, “My God, they’ve quit.”
The players all gathered around David. I can still see his smile from our 1999 interview when he recalled, “They stopped the game.” The noise level in Reynolds Coliseum built into an incredible roar as people in the crowd saw what was taking place. The outcome of the game was never in doubt after that.
D.T., State needed double OT
Thompson suffered a concussion from his terrible fall and needed 16 stitches, but he suffered no structural damage. Improbably, doctors cleared him to play for the national semifinal game against UCLA. For more than 15,000 NC State and ACC fans with tickets to the Final Four games, Thompson’s ability to play meant the Wolfpack would have a real chance in the Bruins’ one and only NCAA trip east of the Appalachian Mountains during the Wooden Dynasty.
Keith Wilkes had contained Thompson during the first meeting in St. Louis, but there was no stopping Thompson at the Greensboro Coliseum.
In his return after the stunning fall, D.T. poured in 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. But the Bruins nonetheless built an 11-point lead.
State rallied and forced overtime, only to see UCLA build a 7-point lead as the game moved into double overtime. Pushed on by the tremendous crowd, the Wolfpack played extremely well, but needed some help from the Bruins to score the landmark victory.
Big men, big egos keyed outcome
Both during regulation and especially during overtime, Wooden instructed his team to play smart and run the clock. Burleson overheard Walton tell his teammates leaving a time out to forget that.
“I want to beat these guys bad,” Walton said.
So even though there was no shot clock and no requirement to keep attacking, Walton put up an eight-foot hook shot that missed. Tommy Curtis tried to drive and was called for charging into Towe.
The Bruins turned the ball over. At the other end, Spence made a big basket. Thompson made a big basket. And NC State made all its free throws to win 80-77.
No doubt John Wooden considered NC State a fine team, but he told reporters after the game his team had done a poor job of playing with the lead. My former colleague Jim Lampley spoke with the Bruins’ Greg Lee in the UCLA locker room. “They’re the same team,” he said. “The same team we beat in St. Louis.”
Burleson still believes what he terms “Bill Walton’s arrogance” played a part in the final outcome. And I have heard Walton say he thinks about the game every day of his life. He told the NCAA.com recently, “It is a stigma on my soul, and there is no way I can get rid of it.”
Walton also praised the NC State players, especially Thompson. “David Thompson’s a dynamic, big-moment guy,” Walton said. “I just wish I could have risen to the occasion.”
NC State, of course, still had to beat Marquette, but the championship game was a bit anti-climatic after everything that took place to get them there. And after State ended the UCLA dynasty, the ACC’s basketball karma began to change.
The new ACC emerges as Final Four force
From 1974 to 1985, every team in the league (including Georgia Tech once it joined the ACC) went to the NCAA’s Elite Eight at least once. There is no comparable period of parity in the history of the league. Moreover, trips to the Final Four became a regular thing.
North Carolina won a championship. NC State won a second championship. Duke won back-to-back championships – the first program to win consecutive titles after the end of the Wooden era.
These days, in spite of a brief Final Four drought, the ACC has the best record in NCAA play – most titles, most Final Four trips, best winning percentage. But it hasn’t always been that way. The big winning started in 1974.