Thompson, Ford and parity made 1975 an ACC Tournament to remember
Posted March 12
I covered the 1975 ACC Tournament. Watched every game. All these years later I still shake my head in disbelief as I look at game accounts and box scores. To borrow a phrase from the late Jack Buck, “I don’t believe what I just saw!”
Oh, sure, thrilling finishes have been a part of every ACC Tournament, dating back to 1954 when Wake Forest and South Carolina played overtime in the very first tournament game. We should see some amazing battles this year. Can you imagine a third Duke-Syracuse game? Well, now try to imagine a tournament where every game was like the two Duke-Syracuse games of 2014.
Six games, six really close games
The ACC counted just seven members in ’75, so settling the championship required just six games. Those six games were decided by 20 points. Total. Every one of the six games was settled in the final minute of play. Two of the games went to overtime. What I find most amazing: If you survey the scores of the six games with 25 seconds to play, the total margin separating the combatants was a scant 10 points – combined!. Virtually every game was a one or two pointer in the closing seconds.
The scoreboard game
Seventh seed Wake Forest met two seed North Carolina in the first shootout at high noon. The Deacons led by eight with 50 seconds to play. Dean Smith, of course, still had a pocket full of timeouts (you got five in those days). Two Tar Heel baskets and two UNC timeouts cut the lead in half and gave Carolina a chance to set up a full court press.
Deacons coach Carl Tacy decided to go for the home run. Jerry Schellenberg threw a high-arching 86-foot baseball pass that Skip Brown caught cleanly and laid in. That likely would have ended Carolina’s comeback, except referee Fred Hikel ruled that the pass hit the scoreboard. The ball did travel very close to the scoreboard. But did it make even the slightest contact with it? I can’t say with certainty one way or the other. But I can confirm this: The flight of the ball did not change. Skip Brown caught the pass over his shoulder without breaking stride.
So instead of being down six and getting the ball under the Wake Forest basket, Carolina is still down just four and now gets the ball under its own basket. The Tar Heels quickly cut the lead to two, fouled a Deacon who missed the front end of a one-and-one and got the rebound for a chance at a tying shot.
Brad Hoffman curled in a jumper from the corner, capping the eight-point, 50-second comeback with about one second to spare. Carolina won in OT 101-100.
Wake’s Tacy has not mellowed any regarding the outcome of the scoreboard ruling. He told me last year: “It was a HORRIBLE call.”
Devils stuck in a tree
Clemson and Duke, the third and sixth seeds respectively (yes Clemson was No. 3 and Duke was No. 6 that year), staged another cliffhanger in the second game. The Blue Devils, paced by 16 points and 12 boards from Willie Hodge, threatened to upset the Tigers. But Clemson’s aptly named center Wayne “Tree” Rollins hit a shot with just over 20 seconds to go, giving Clemson a 78-76 victory.
The drama surrounding that ’75 ACC Tournament actually began several days before the games in Greensboro got underway. Only the one and five seeds were settled during the 12-game ACC season; there was a tie for sixth and a three-way tie for second. That speaks to the parity in the league that year.
Commissioner Bob James had to conduct a drawing to settle those ties.
NC State lost the drawing for second and got slotted into the fourth spot. And so, for the nightcap of the first day of play, the defending national champion Wolfpack took on fifth seeded Virginia.
The Pack, led by David Thompson, stormed to a 22-point lead. But Billy Langloh and Wally Walker brought the Cavaliers all the way back. By the closing seconds, State’s lead had shrunk to just one point, 84-83. Thompson and Monty Towe put out the fire though and gave State a 91-85 win, the final margin padded by free throws.
Cramping State’s style
Then and now it’s difficult to conceive of a second day as good as the first, but trust me, it happened.
Top seed Maryland, which rested the first day, fell behind a State team that looked to be in championship form again.
The Pack built a 17-point lead with nine minutes left in the game. Then Thompson, inexplicably, developed a severe case of leg cramps. John Lucas spearheaded a late Maryland surge. Unlike Virginia, which got within one but couldn’t take the lead, the Terps took command against the Wolfpack with nine seconds to go. State, trailing 85-84, put the ball in Mo Rivers’ hands. And he found Kenny Carr who manufactured a basket with one second left. And he got fouled. Wolfpack 87, Terps 85.
Despite the attack of those cramps, Thompson led all scorers in the tournament with 84 points.
Phil Ford scored almost as many, 78. And the Tar Heels needed every one against Clemson.
The Tigers overcame an 11-point deficit, with the help of an unstoppable jump hook by the 7’1" Rollins. It was 64-64 headed into the final seconds, and Clemson wound up getting the ball back for a final shot. The Tigers again found Rollins on the low block.
I was sitting right under the Clemson basket. This shot looked EXACTLY like the shot he had just made a couple of minutes earlier. The ball went through the cylinder and at least halfway down, but somehow the basket regurgitated the Tree’s game-winning attempt, and the teams played overtime. The final: UNC 76, Clemson 71. Ford made 15 free throws.
Phil Ford told me later that he felt reborn after Rollins’ shot spun back out. He certainly capitalized on Carolina’s good fortune. The Heels somehow survived two overtime games to reach the finals.
Old nemesis NC State stood in the way, but Thompson was still bothered by those painful cramps. He played, but hit only 7 of 21 shots, certainly not normal DT numbers.
Carolina’s strategy was to build a lead and make State chase. The Tar Heels built a lead, lost it, then regained it, as Carr suffered an injury to his arm. When Walter Davis hit the shot that put UNC back on top, Smith called for “Four Corners” with nine minutes left.
Dean Smith told me once he considered “Four Corners” as just part of the game in college basketball’s pre-shot-clock era. But he did admit, when Ford was the guy dribbling and making defenses chase, it might have been a little unfair.
Even the athletic Wolfpack, with the lightning quick Towe and Rivers, couldn’t take the ball from Ford. And he seemed to make every free throw. Carolina won the game in what amounted to the tournament “blowout,” 70-66, and Ford was named MVP.
For the rest of his career, Carolina’s delay game would become known as the “Ford Corners.”
NC State had dominated ACC play in 1973 and 1974, going undefeated in back-to-back seasons and winning the conference race by three and four games. North Carolina would go on to win the league in 1976 by four games.
But in 1975, those ACC teams, all of them, were about as evenly matched as you can get.