Classic 1974 NC State-Maryland ACC title clash hits 40-year mark

Former N.C. State coach Norm Sloan guided the Wolfpack to the 1974 ACC Tournament title en route to a national championship.

Harold Valentine/AP

Only 14 players saw action, seven for N.C. State and seven for Maryland, in 45 hard-fought minutes. Eight of those 14 went on to be NBA Draft picks.

There were 91 field goals made on 157 attempts between the teams, in spite of top-level defense being played.

"We didn’t score 100 points or they didn’t because we were sorry defensive teams. (N.C. State) had a 7-foot-4 center" in Tommy Burleson, said Lefty Driesell, who coached that Maryland team. "We had (Len) Elmore, who was one of the best shot-blockers ever to play in the league."

The result was a beautiful, up-and-down basketball game played at the highest-possible level by some of the best players in college basketball history, a game ending with No. 1 N.C. State edging No. 4 Maryland in overtime, 103-100. After the game, the crowd — a Greensboro, N.C. crowd, traditionally unfriendly to non-North Carolina ACC teams — stayed and gave both teams a standing ovation.

"The crowd started to realize the look of that game, how smoothly it was played. People look at 103-100 in overtime, they don’t realize the defense was outstanding," Elmore said. "Here we are, we can score that many points without a 35-second clock, without the 3-point shot, and we had seven potential first-round picks on the floor at the same time."

That 1974 classic is, to this day, often thought of as the best game in college basketball history.

Those who played in it certainly won’t argue with that.

"When you have two really, really, really good teams, you’re going to get a high level of play," Burleson said. "It’s just, I don’t know — it’s sort of like two really good boxers. You can’t really knock either one out, so you’re sort of throwing punches and at the same time, you’re trying to protect yourself from getting a knockout punch."

It featured arguably the best player in ACC history, N.C. State’s David Thompson, who finished that game with 29 points on 10-of-24 shooting — a bad game by his standards. Thompson, a high-flying leaper who was practically unguardable on a college court in 1974, wasn’t even allowed to dunk in those days. He had to place the ball gently in the hoop. But it was his 7-foot-4 center who felt like he had something to prove, and did so with a game-high 38 points.

"We thought that David could get his, but we could stop everyone else. That almost worked," Elmore said. "When you have players like that, between the inside threat of a Tom Burleson and the outside and inside threat of David Thompson, you have to pick your poison. We picked the poison of trying to stop David and not paying nearly as much attention to Tom, and it burned us."

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Burleson was motivated by his head coach Norm Sloan reminding him repeatedly that the ACC sportswriters saw the 6-foot-9 Elmore as a better center than him. Burleson just missed out on becoming the first player to make First Team All-ACC three straight times as Elmore got the spot ahead of him.

"I’d played three years of pretty much dominant basketball and I felt that I should’ve been, without any reserve or doubt that I was the best center in the league," Burleson said. "Of course for some reason, the sportswriters didn’t see it that way or N.C. State didn’t promote me in the light that I needed to be promoted in, and I became Second Team. I would’ve been the first player ever to make First Team All-ACC three years in a row. That was disappointing. So Len Elmore made the statement that he was finally getting the credit due to him, that he was a better center than I was or whatever he was saying.

"I love Len. He’s a great player. I think he’s more built as a power forward. At 6-9, he was a really good athlete, great jumping ability, great rebounder, fundamentally very strong. But at the center position, I felt that I was a better player. So that game sort of played into my hands."

Elmore still sees it differently: "Look for me, that game was all-important because not only to get to the NCAA Tournament — I wanted to win a national championship. If it took the fact that I got the First Team ACC nod over him, if it took that to fire him up for that game, something’s wrong. No, seriously. I believe that. I think that’s more of a press-created thing than anything else. Because you had to be up and at your peak to expect to win that game. Tom had a great game. As I said, no one can deny that because he was an outstanding player."

It was N.C. State that went on to win the national championship that season, finishing 24-1 after an undefeated season the year before (but having to miss the NCAA Tournament for eligibility reasons), cementing itself as one of the best teams in the conference’s storied history. After the loss, Maryland declined an NIT invitation. It just decided to end its season.

"Why risk losing to an inferior team just because we didn’t come to play? Then our legacy is destroyed," Elmore said. "In the end, I think we were vindicated by the fact that when they were asked who the best team was that they played, and they said it was us."

After the game was settled, following a turnover from exhausted Maryland guard John Lucas with 23 seconds to go in overtime, that mutual respect between the ACC rivals set in. In spite of his disappointment with the final result, Driesell got onto the N.C. State bus before it pulled away from Greensboro Coliseum and congratulated the Wolfpack. Driesell said he had made similar appearances in opponents’ locker rooms before, but never on the bus. And certainly not as he had on that particular March night, trudging outside to struggle his way up the steps, physically and emotionally exhausted.

"I really liked that team," Driesell said. "They were nice kids and I liked Norman Sloan. I wanted them to win it, and they did."

On March 16, 2014, there will be 68 teams that make the NCAA Tournament field, 34 of them with at-large berths.

On March 9, 1974, an NCAA Tournament began that included just 25 teams total.

There was no bubble in 1974, no committee to impress, no quality wins, no quality losses, nothing. It was: Win your conference tournament or play in the NIT. And so it was little consolation for No. 4 Maryland in 1974 that it was on the losing end of a classic. Elmore, in turn, has very little sympathy for the modern "bubble" team that gets left out.

"I don’t necessarily say too bad for you, but I tell people the rules work to your benefit," Elmore said. "Here we are, we’re the No. 4 team in the country and we couldn’t get in the tournament. Some of these teams ranked in the 60s and 70s RPI (today) are crying about ‘maybe we should get in the tournament.’ I just kind of chuckle. The irony of it all."

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There were eight top-20 teams from the March 5 AP poll that didn’t make the 1974 NCAA Tournament at all, including three top-10 teams. Two of those left out were from the ACC: Maryland and No. 12 North Carolina. But that Terps team, which had lost at UCLA earlier that season by a single point, was such a great team, and was just a part of such a great game, that it helped change the NCAA Tournament policy of giving berths only to conference champions.

"Everybody said, and I didn’t make the rules, but that was the game everybody said, ‘€˜We’ve got to let two teams in if it’s a real good league,’" Driesell said. "The next year it was two and then it went to three to four or whatever. Now it’s (68). But that game was sort of the game that changed it, really."

It’s hard not to hang on to some "what if" questions about that ACC title game, though, even 40 years later. Even in his 80s and with certain details still fuzzy, to the former Terps coach still has one moment that sticks out.

"I wanted John Lucas to take the last shot (of regulation)," Driesell said. He’s so unselfish and he threw it to somebody else (Maurice Howard), who missed it. The guy that missed it was a heck of a player, too. So the play didn’t work out exactly like I wanted it to.

"If we’d made that shot, we could’ve been national champions, maybe."

John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins had been the unbeatable team of that era. Until, of course, N.C. State actually beat them in the national semifinals. It was yet another historic moment, another shift in college basketball history, and as the Wolfpack cut down the final nets after taking out Marquette in the title game, there were mixed reactions around the conference, especially in College Park.

Driesell was rooting for the Wolfpack to win it all once his team couldn’t.

Elmore was not.

"Heck no. I wasn’t happy (N.C. State) won it. It should’ve been us. Are you kidding me? But it wasn’t. They were the better team. Not by much, by a razor’s edge, but they were the better team."

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Driesell’s teams were oh-so-close a bit too often for his taste, understandably. He was always one to rage against the machine, and he figured that Maryland was an outsider looking in at a league ruled by the North Carolina members. He always said that once he finally won an ACC Championship game, he would ride around the state of North Carolina with the trophy on the hood of his car.

He had to wait 10 more years, but he finally got his opportunity. When the Len Bias-led Terps took home the 1984 tourney title, that did not happen.

"No. No, I didn’t do that," Driesell said, laughing. "I said that because we had lost in the finals five times, or six. Five, I guess it was. After one of those, I said, ‘€˜Look, if we ever win this thing, I’ll put the trophy on the front of my Cadillac and drive it around the state.’ But I didn’t do that, no."

Maryland, even back in 1974, went into those Greensboro ACC Tournaments already thinking it would get the short end of the stick. The Terps knew they were the enemy in North Carolina territory, where the Big Four — North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest and N.C. State — reigned over the rest of the league. Driesell often complained about Maryland’s supposed outsider status, sometimes just to needle North Carolinians. He’s not unlike current Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim in that way. But Elmore said there were legitimate concerns there.

"There was one moment where N.C. State went out for a fast break. Mo Howard chased the driver down. … He blocked his shot and it was a legitimate, clean block but they called goaltending," Elmore said of the ’74 game. "I said to myself, ‘€˜Uh-oh. We’re in North Carolina.’ No one can say that that’s not a legitimate concern because here we are playing in the backyard of one of the greatest teams ever, and it’s hard not to think that they had a home court advantage, to a certain extent. Subsequently when they started to move the conference tournament, you saw teams like Virginia and others actually win the doggone thing."

With all the concerns Maryland fans and others had about the ACC, none of them could have imagined that they’d be playing in their final ACC Tournament — in Greensboro, of all places — 40 years later, before heading off to the Big Ten next season.

Driesell, as much as he complained about Greensboro and the officials and all things related, is perhaps unhappiest with Maryland’s move. Former Terps star Tom McMillen, now on the Maryland Board of Regents, was the only person to vote against the switch to the Big Ten.

"I’ve said I think that’s ludicrous. (ESPN analyst) Jay Bilas, I heard him on TV the other day say, ‘Well, it was a business decision. Any businessman in America would’ve done it.’ I don’t think college sports is a business. It’s a sport," Driesell said. "I think Maryland will be sorry they did it. … I think it’ll hurt their recruiting, plus they’ve got to fly way out to the Midwest to play games. They’re going to miss more class. They’re going to be flying in bad weather. I think it’s ludicrous."

For Elmore, the worst part of the move is that fans will not remember what Maryland meant to the ACC, and vice versa. They were one of the first teams to sign African-American players, for instance, in either football or basketball.

"Maryland literally changed the way basketball and football was played in the league by integrating both of them," Elmore said. "If not for Billy Jones in basketball, I wouldn’t have been an ACC player. David Thompson, Michael Jordan wouldn’t have been ACC players. If not for Daryl Hill, some of the greatest football players coming out of the ACC wouldn’t be there. That’s what hurts the most is that that legacy is probably going to be forgotten."

All anyone involved can hope for now is that the great moments, like that classic 1974 game, won’t be forgotten.

UCLA had been the unbeatable team of that era — until, of course, N.C. State actually beat them. N.C. State lost by quite a few points to the Bruins earlier that season at a neural site, while Maryland lost at UCLA by just one point.

Knowing that, it felt like the team that beat UCLA was going to win it all. But the two teams had to get past each other to get that opportunity.

Burleson, though, felt like there was no way his team could lose. It was the headspace he was in as the game wore on.

He said he learned his style from fellow seven-footer Artis Gilmore, who he watched play a game in North Carolina when Burleson was just in high school. He watched Gilmore get spit on, beat on and harassed for nearly an entire game – until he decided that he was going to take the game over.

Burleson, like a racehorse, he said, saved his best for the end, like a second wind, or an extra burst.

"With about 3-4 minutes in the game is when I really start stepping everything up. I start pushing myself and I catch my second wind. When I caught my second wind, it was like the whole game went into slow motion," Burleson said.

"I started looking down at the other end of the court at the timeout. … They were down with their hands on their knees and bent over, having a hard time catching their wind. As I walked back out, I could see the whole game just pan out before me. I could see the guard to the forward, I could see Point A to Point B, I could see where the ball was going. I could see the flow of the game, how they were trying to transition the ball in their play.

"I was getting myself in position to overplay the ball. I was getting myself in position to get in the passing lane and steal the ball. When Mo Howard drove the baseline, I was there to block the shot. When Lucas was going out of bounds to try to save the ball back in, I was the only player that sprinted to him and I was there, waiting for the ball to come back in.

"The whole game, it was my game. That’s what happened. That’s how I played the game of basketball. … I’m like a racehorse – when I get to that front stretch and I see that finish line, that’s when I open up my game. That’s when I become the most dominant that I can become."

UCLA had been the unbeatable team of that era — until, of course, N.C. State actually beat them. N.C. State lost by quite a few points to the Bruins earlier that season at a neural site, while Maryland lost at UCLA by just one point.

Knowing that, it felt like the team that beat UCLA was going to win it all. But the two teams had to get past each other to get that opportunity.

Burleson, though, felt like there was no way his team could lose. It was the headspace he was in as the game wore on.

He said he learned his style from fellow seven-footer Artis Gilmore, who he watched play a game in North Carolina when Burleson was just in high school. He watched Gilmore get spit on, beat on and harassed for nearly an entire game – until he decided that he was going to take the game over.

Burleson, like a racehorse, he said, saved his best for the end, like a second wind, or an extra burst.

"With about 3-4 minutes in the game is when I really start stepping everything up. I start pushing myself and I catch my second wind. When I caught my second wind, it was like the whole game went into slow motion," Burleson said.

"I started looking down at the other end of the court at the timeout. … They were down with their hands on their knees and bent over, having a hard time catching their wind. As I walked back out, I could see the whole game just pan out before me. I could see the guard to the forward, I could see Point A to Point B, I could see where the ball was going. I could see the flow of the game, how they were trying to transition the ball in their play.

"I was getting myself in position to overplay the ball. I was getting myself in position to get in the passing lane and steal the ball. When Mo Howard drove the baseline, I was there to block the shot. When Lucas was going out of bounds to try to save the ball back in, I was the only player that sprinted to him and I was there, waiting for the ball to come back in.

"The whole game, it was my game. That’s what happened. That’s how I played the game of basketball. … I’m like a racehorse – when I get to that front stretch and I see that finish line, that’s when I open up my game. That’s when I become the most dominant that I can become."