Bob Holliday

NC State v. UCLA: ACC's biggest NCAA game ever

Posted April 27

From left to right: NC State's Tom Burleson, NC State's Phil Spence, and UCLA's Bill Walton.

Winning NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships has become somewhat commonplace in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Since 1991, ACC teams have won 10 titles in 27 years: Five by Duke, four by UNC, and one by Maryland. Yes, Maryland is no longer in the ACC but was replaced by Louisville which won the NCAA Title in 2013. Fans today expect ACC teams to make trips to the Final Four and more, thanks to the league’s run of success. It wasn’t always like this.

Older readers will know the gentlemen in this photo. From left to right: NC State’s Tom Burleson, NC State’s Phil Spence, and UCLA’s Bill Walton. They all played in the game that finally established the ACC as the up and coming conference in college basketball.

ACC’s Early Years Were Lean

Yes, Frank McGuire’s 32-0 miracle at North Carolina produced a National Championship for the ACC in 1957. But that’s the only time in the first 20 years of the ACC that one of its teams hoisted the big trophy. The league’s reputation was NOTHING like today.

From 1954-1962, the ACC Champion had to compete in a “play-in game” to earn a spot in the East Regional. Most of the other big conferences, the Big Ten, the Big Eight, the Pacific Coast, and the SEC, all got first round byes and went directly to the Sweet Sixteen in what was then a 25 team tournament. With ACC teams having to play an extra game, UNC was the only ACC School to reach the Final Four in that time span. It wasn’t until Wake Forest reached the Final Four in 1962, and defeated UCLA in the Consolation Game (third place games were played until the early 80’s) that the NCAA finally deemed the ACC worthy of receiving an automatic bye into regional play. That, incidentally, was the last time UCLA lost an NCAA game for more than a decade, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

When the ACC was put on more equal footing with the other power conferences of that era, the league’s representatives fared better. Duke went to the Final Four in 1963, 1964, and 1966. Carolina earned three straight trips to the Final Four in ’67, ’68, and ’69. UNC made another trip to the Final Four in 1972. But there were no titles.

The ACC did have regular season success, often scoring big upsets of national powers during Raleigh’s Dixie Classic; North Carolina beat Kentucky several times in the ACC’s early years; and Duke, after losing to UCLA in the 1964 NCAA Championship, whipped the Bruins twice in the state of North Carolina during the 64-65 regular season.

Impact of the ACC Tournament

Why didn’t the ACC fare better in the NCAA Tournament those early years? In addition to not getting the NCAA bye until 1962, the ACC determined its league champion by holding a tournament. And believe me, in the era when only one team received a bid to the NCAA’s, those ACC Tournament games were pressure packed. The ACC was the only major conference to select its NCAA representative with a tournament. The Big Ten, Big Eight, Pacific Coast (which became the Pacific Eight in 1964),and SEC all designated their regular season champions for NCAA Tournament bids.

If you watched ACC Tournament games in the days when each league got just one bid to the NCAA’s, you could see the disadvantages of the ACC’s method of selecting its conference representative . Three extra games. Difficult games. Fatigue. Pressure. I had players in the late 60’s, early 70’s tell me that the ACC Tournament in the “Winner Take All” days drained them physically and emotionally.

I remember hearing some conversations about doing away with the ACC Tournament for this reason. But those conversations never got far. Even in the league’s early days, the ACC Tournament was a big money maker and generated tremendous interest within the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland. ACC people understood their path to the NCAA Title was longer and more difficult than at Ohio State, Cincinnati, or UCLA. And the ACC did have an excellent PR machine even back then.

But few people outside the league’s footprint understood the fact that ACC teams were playing in effect a seven game tournament, while schools in the other big conferences could become NCAA Champions with four wins. Local columnists in that era sometimes cited the league tournament as a reason the ACC won just one NCAA title in its first 20 years. But to outsiders this was merely an excuse.

The ACC’s Quest for Respect

After the seven trips Duke and UNC made to the Final Four between 1963 and 1972, ACC people and especially ACC fans, believed their conference was the best and best balanced in America. But few outside the conference footprint shared that opinion. I understood that, having grown up first in Kentucky in SEC territory, and then in Wisconsin, where the Big Ten ruled. When I first moved to North Carolina as a student, I looked at the ACC as just one more good conference. But the experience of watching dozens of league games, especially once I became a member of the media, slowly changed my opinion.

I really thought UNC might win it all in ’69 or ’72. But attending/covering those two Final Fours showed that good as the ACC might be, UCLA was clearly the nation’s best team. The Bruins failed to make the NCAA Tournament in 1966, but they won every National Championship from 1967-1973 as well as the titles in 1964 and 1965. So that’s nine NCAA banners in ten years and 36 straight NCAA wins for Coach John Wooden’s Bruins. Meanwhile the ACC, aside from 1957, couldn’t win even one championship.

On further review, some of UCLA’s wins came in friendly West Coast arenas. The rest came at neutral sites, like Louisville or Kansas City. Not once did the UCLAns have to win an NCAA Championship in a hostile environment.

Larry Miller, star of UNC’s 1968 NCAA Finalists, always felt if the Tar Heels had played the Bruins in Greensboro, instead of in Los Angeles, “it would have been a whole different story.” Now, since that 1968 UCLA team with Kareem Abdul Jabbar defeated the Tar Heels by 23 points, and is considered by many basketball historians to be the most dominant team in the history of the game, I can’t agree with Miller’s assessment. But he makes a point that it does matter where you play. And in 1974, UCLA was going to have to come to Greensboro.

1974 and New Possibilities

By this point, many of us in the media were pulling hard for any ACC team to win a championship and the 1973-74 season provided three good possibilities. North Carolina, under Dean Smith, put together a team that spent the season ranked in the top 10. Maryland, under Lefty Driesell, who had come to College Park vowing to make his school “The UCLA of the East” nearly knocked off the Bruins early in the season, losing by just a couple of points. And NC State, which had recruited Tom Burleson and David Thompson, posed an even greater threat to the Bruins, coming off a season in which the Wolfpack went 27-0.

State in 1973 did not advance beyond the ACC Tournament because of a one year NCAA probation. Good as Maryland was, NCSU did not lose to the Terrapins in ’73 or ’74, though virtually every game between the two schools was a thriller. So Maryland’s near win against UCLA really spiked hope around the conference that 1974 might be the year.

At the same time, ACC media understood 1974 was put up or shut up time. The NCAA East Regionals were to be played at Reynolds Coliseum. The Final Four would be at the Greensboro Coliseum. If the league couldn’t end its 17 year drought under this scenario, when would it ever produce a national champion?

NC State played UCLA in mid-season at a neutral site in St. Louis and got absolutely drubbed-almost 20 points. But the Wolfpack was breaking in some new players, like Mo Rivers and Phil Spence, who joined returning veterans Burleson, Thompson, Monte Towe, and Tim Stoddard. State continued to get better in January, February, and March. Meanwhile, UCLA saw its three year 88-game win streak snapped in January at Notre Dame. In February, the Bruins unthinkably lost on back to back nights at Oregon State and Oregon. It began to look like “The Walton Gang,” as Jamal Wilkes, Greg Lee, and Bill Walton were then known, were getting a case of senioritis.

Serious Complications for the Wolfpack

Unfortunately for NC State, Maryland was also getting better. Along press row we used to refer to Maryland as “The Five Pros” because it was pretty clear most of the Terps’ line up could make it in the NBA. In the ACC Semi-Finals, Maryland crushed UNC by 20, and remember the Tar Heels were a top ten team. And the Terps played even better in the Finals against State, building a 17 point lead.

OK, time out here. Remember, in 1974, only ONE ACC team can go the NCAA Tournament in Raleigh and Greensboro. Maryland and NC State are two of the best three teams in the country. But after this ACC Championship game, one of them will be done for the year. NC State at this point is something like 55-1 over two seasons; but if the Pack can’t mount a comeback those numbers won’t matter. The Wolfpack, of course, did rally, behind Burleson, who poured in 38 points against Len Elmore, who in my view is one of the best defensive centers in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Thompson chipped in 29 points and the Pack somehow survived 103-100. For me, that game will always be the GOAT because of the quality of play and the incredibly high stakes. I vividly remember as a mere observer of that game feeling absolutely drained after it was over. HIGH STRESS!

Maryland, the best team ever to be left out of the NCAA Tournament, shot 61 percent and scored 100 points. The Terps suffered just five losses-to UCLA, UNC, and three to NC State. The next season, I believe largely as a result of that game, the NCAA expanded its field from 25 to 32 teams. Maryland did get one of two ACC invitations for the 1975 NCAA Tournament. But in 1974, the ACC’s only bid went to NC State.

David’s Terrible Fall

So now the Wolfpack just has to win two games on its home court (yes that was allowed then) to get the once in a lifetime chance to play UCLA in Greensboro. The Pack dispatched a good Providence team in the East Regional Semi-Finals. But in the Regional Championship, State went up against a pretty aggressive Pitt team.

I was sitting on press row underneath the NC State basket. I noticed that David Thompson had twice gotten hit on his shooting arm without fouls being called. David was getting angry. And when David got angry he would jump as high as he could. This was a guy who could jump an amazing 44 inches from a standing position. With a running start, there was no telling how high he could go. DT was determined to send Pitt a message by leaping into the stratosphere and sending the next Panther jump shot into the 17th row. Mission accomplished. But he landed on the shoulders of his teammate Phil Spence. Now, it may not look to you that Spence looks that tall in the photo above between Burleson and Walton. But they are seven footers. Spence stood 6’8. Think about that. From this perch six feet above the floor, Thompson fell backward head first. It was the worst thing I have seen if 40 plus years of covering ACC sports. He landed on the back of his head and lay motionless on the floor. Phil Spence said years later, his reaction was “oh no, I have killed David Thompson.”

Thompson was taken to the hospital on a stretcher as 12,400 people at Reynolds Coliseum watched in anguish. Not one person was thinking about a possible matchup with UCLA the following Saturday. Coach Norm Sloan told me years later that the hospital where David was being examined received a call from Walter Cronkite, the CBS News Legend. Cronkite had heard Thompson might be paralyzed-or worse. Although he definitely suffered a head injury, Thompson was able to return to Reynolds Coliseum in the second half, wearing a bandage around his scalp. The late C.A.Dillon, who was the P.A. announcer that day, said it reminded him of a conquering war hero returning home from battle. It was a remarkable scene, watching arguably the greatest player in ACC history, return from what looked like a potentially fatal fall. The crowd in Reynolds erupted and State went on to a decisive win over the Panthers.

UCLA in Greensboro Finally

And so the long sought matchup between an ACC power and UCLA in the state of North Carolina, would finally take place. And NC State, instead of losing its star player, now went into that game with an extra burst of emotion. David would be OK. He was able to practice four days later. And he would play well enough in the 1974 Final Four to be named Most Outstanding Player.

Still, part of NC State’s success in that event came because of the Bruins’ impatience. Remember, there was no shot clock in 1974. UCLA had a five point lead in regulation, but didn’t sit on it. The Wolfpack came back and forced overtime with the score tied at 65. The teams actually played two overtimes, and in the second OT UCLA built a seven point lead. There was a time out. I have to believe Coach Wooden told his team, to be patient-“we don’t have to score.” Wolfpack players overhead Walton coming out of the time out saying “forget that. I want to beat these guys bad.” I definitely remember Walton putting up a hook shot in the end zone where I sat on press row. And maybe there was another shot that missed on UCLA’s next trip down the floor. Whatever-State cut that seven point lead to four and got the ball. A Wolfpack jump shot missed, but then came what play by play announcer Wally Ausley called “a tremendous tip in by Tommy Burleson.”

Now it’s a two point game. 15,500 fans in Greensboro, almost all pulling for NC State and the ACC, are beginning to believe. Now UCLA does try to hold the ball and run out the clock. But Mo Rivers gets a steal. Burleson gets fouled. He makes the first, but misses the second. But wait! Tim Stoddard gets the rebound. Given an extra possession, the ball quickly finds its way to Thompson. He buries a jumper and State has the lead for good. Wolfpack 80, Bruins 77.

State still had to defeat Marquette to win the NCAA Title and UCLA would have to play Kansas in a consolation game. But State-UCLA in 1974 effectively ended the UCLA dynasty, though the Bruins would win one more championship before Coach Wooden retired; the game definitely ended the college career of Bill Walton, one of the game’s all-time best. Walton has said on more than one occasion that he thinks about that loss to NC State every single day of his life.

Here’s a guy who led his team to 88 straight wins, and two national championships-with Walton hitting 21 of 22 shots in the greatest performance in NCAA history during that second NCAA finale. And yet it’s the third tournament, the one where Walton in his strong-willed senior season went against the counsel of his coach, that he remembers most.

It is impossible to say emphatically enough, how much that NC State win meant for the future of ACC basketball. For one thing, a certain youngster in Wilmington grew up watching David Thompson, idolizing him. And in 1982, that youngster began to blossom into a superstar. Michael Jordan hit the shot that led North Carolina to the ACC’s third NCAA title. 1983, as every NC State fan knows, brought the remarkable NCAA Championship run of Jim Valvano and the Wolfpack.

Mike Krzyzewski and Duke, certainly motivated by the success of their Triangle rivals, began to build their own legacy, with a remarkable run of Final Fours in the late 80’s and early 90’s plus back to back NCAA Championships in 1991 and 1992. Those were the first since the Walton Gang at UCLA. The success at Duke was met by more success at UNC and more success across the ACC.

17 years passed between the ACC’s first NCAA title in 1957 and the all important win in 1974. State-UCLA changed so much about how fans, media, coaches, and especially recruits-regard the Atlantic Coast Conference. Since 1974, the ACC has not gone more than eight years between National Championships. Since 1991, the league has been winning titles on average, every three seasons. No other league can say that. But if NC State doesn’t beat UCLA that day in Greensboro, the ACC’s path to the top takes a very different turn. And maybe today the ACC is just another good conference.

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