The NCAA tournament was never the same after the 1974 ACC title game

Three teams - North Carolina, Duke and Clemson - will arrive at next week’s ACC men’s basketball tournament in D.C. as virtual locks to make the NCAA tournament. Four others - Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia and Wake Forest - still have work to do to secure an at-large bid ahead of Selection Sunday. The stakes are high but nothing like they were 50 years ago, when a pair of top-five ACC teams met in the conference championship game knowing the winner would advance to the NCAA tournament and the loser would be left out.

North Carolina State’s pressure-packed 103-100 overtime victory against Maryland at Greensboro Coliseum on March 9, 1974, remains one of the greatest college basketball games ever played. The triumph propelled the Wolfpack to its first NCAA title and left Maryland and Coach Lefty Driesell to agonize over another missed opportunity, knowing they were better than almost every team that would have a chance to compete for the national championship.

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The game sparked change and helped usher in a new era of March Madness: The NCAA tournament, which had been restricted to conference champions and independents, added at-large berths the following year.

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This was our last chance’

Led by sophomore guard John Lucas and senior post players Len Elmore and Tom McMillen, Maryland was 21-4 and ranked fourth in the country entering the ACC tournament. To earn a berth in the 25-team NCAA tournament, the Terps would have to capture their first ACC tournament title since 1958 by winning three games in three days, and top-ranked N.C. State would almost certainly be waiting for them in the championship game.

The Wolfpack arrived in Greensboro 24-1 and winners of 30 consecutive games against ACC teams, including five straight against Maryland dating from an 87-85 triumph at Cole Field House the previous season. Two months after that dramatic win in College Park on a last-second tip-in by then-sophomore guard David Thompson in the first nationally televised college basketball game on Super Bowl Sunday, N.C. State improved to 27-0 with a 76-74 win over Maryland in the ACC tournament final.

N.C. State’s 1972-73 team was on one-year probation for recruiting violations and ineligible for additional postseason play, so Maryland had secured the conference’s only berth in the 1973 NCAA tournament with a win over Wake Forest in the ACC tournament semifinals. Driesell likened the championship to a “consolation game” and held Elmore, who was nursing a foot injury, out of the contest. The Terps went on to lose to Providence in the 1973 East Region final.

Thompson, who is widely considered the greatest player in ACC history, scored 41 points in N.C. State’s first meeting with Maryland during the 1973-74 regular season, an 80-74 Wolfpack win at Raleigh’s Reynolds Coliseum. After limiting 7-foot-4 Tom Burleson to 3-for-19 shooting in that game, the 6-foot-9 Elmore asked reporters to deliver a message to N.C. State’s towering senior star, who was looking to become the first player to earn first-team all-ACC honors in three consecutive years.

“Tell Burleson I’m the best center in the ACC,” he said.

N.C. State won the rematch at Cole Field House, 86-80, to remain perfect in conference play. By winning the ACC’s regular season title, the Wolfpack received a bye into the ACC tournament semifinals. Maryland, which finished tied for second at 9-3, blitzed Duke, 85-66, in the quarterfinals before drubbing No. 6 North Carolina, 105-85, to clinch a spot in the title game. Driesell, who relished the opportunity to run up the score against Tar Heels Coach Dean Smith, left his starters in for most of the blowout win, which was North Carolina’s worst defeat in five years. Meanwhile, N.C. State hardly broke a sweat in its 21-point win over Virginia.

“We’ll be fine physically tomorrow night against State,” Elmore, who led the conference in rebounding and was voted first-team all-ACC over Burleson, told reporters after Maryland’s semifinal rout of the Tar Heels. “It’s the emotional drain that can get to you.”

The pressure was enormous for both squads. The winner would head to the NCAA tournament, as had been the case since N.C. State won the first ACC tournament in 1954. The loser probably would receive an invite from the NIT, the second-tier tournament Maryland won two years earlier after losing to North Carolina in the ACC title game.

“The absurdity that one of the top three teams in the nation was not going to be able to compete for a national championship wasn’t lost on us,” Elmore said in a recent phone interview. “But that’s what it was. For all of us seniors, this was our last chance. How much more do you need to motivate you?”

“If we don’t win this game against Maryland, then all of the things that we had done prior to that probably don’t get recognized,” N.C. State junior point guard Monte Towe said in “The Tournament,” ESPN Films’ 2022 documentary about the history of ACC men’s basketball. “… It almost didn’t seem fair.”

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Burleson’s big night

Burleson pumped his fists at center court during pregame introductions as the pro-Wolfpack crowd of 15,451 in Greensboro roared in anticipation of the prime-time matchup most everyone expected at the outset of the tournament. N.C. State was the more rested team, but it was the Terps who got out to a fast start.

“Maryland fans have gone into pandemonium,” play-by-play man Jim Thacker, who called the game alongside color analyst Billy Packer, said after the Terps took a 14-5 lead in the early going. Maryland led by as many as 13 points in the first half and took a 55-50 advantage into halftime.

The second half was a back-and-forth affair between teams featuring eight future NBA draft picks. Driesell stomped his feet while seated on the Maryland bench after Elmore was called for goaltending on a shot by Burleson, giving N.C. State a 64-61 lead. It was one of several questionable goaltending calls that went against the Terps, who attempted 18 fewer free throws than the Wolfpack.

“I experienced that so much, where the officials did not know how to call blocked shots,” said Elmore, the ACC’s first great shot-blocker. “They couldn’t differentiate between blocks and a goaltend.”

N.C. State took a 91-89 lead with 4:41 remaining after Maryland guard Mo Howard was called for goaltending on a shot by Moe Rivers on a fast break. Thacker and Packer agreed Howard’s defensive play looked like a clean block.

The Wolfpack extended its lead to four after Burleson delivered a bounce pass through the legs of McMillen, his teammate on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team, to forward Phil Spence for an easy layup. After Maryland tied the score at 97 on a layup by Elmore with a minute to go, N.C. State attempted to hold the ball for the final shot.

With 37 seconds left, McMillen stole a pass by Mark Moeller, giving Driesell a chance to draw up a play for the game-winning shot. With nine seconds to go after a timeout, Lucas passed to Howard on the left wing. Howard, who had made 10 of 13 shots in the game, dribbled to his left and caught a glimpse of Burleson in the lane. Fearing his shot would be blocked, Howard spun and passed back outside to Lucas, who forced up an air ball at the buzzer.

“In retrospect, maybe I should have shot the ball,” Howard said in “The Tournament.”

Overtime did not bode well for the Terps.

“We outplayed them decisively for at least the first 15 minutes of the game,” Driesell said afterward. “Then you could almost see us start to tire. It was just enough to let them back in.”

Howard and Elmore had played every minute of Maryland’s previous two games, while McMillen and Lucas had played all but two minutes. Still, Maryland had a one-point lead with just over two minutes remaining in overtime, when Lucas missed the front end of a one-and-one.

With the Terps focusing their defensive attention on Thompson and Burleson, Towe found Spence alone under the basket for a layup and a one-point lead at the other end. After Burleson rejected Howard’s running one-hander, Rivers missed a free throw, giving Maryland a final shot to win.

The Terps trailed 101-100 with roughly 20 seconds remaining when Lucas, who averaged a team-high 20.1 points and 5.7 assists that season, threw a cross-court pass over Elmore’s outstretched hand and out of bounds. Towe sank a pair of free throws with six seconds remaining to give the Wolfpack a 103-100 lead, effectively sealing N.C. State’s win. The three-point line wouldn’t be added to the college game until 1986.

Maryland had been determined to not let Thompson, who averaged 40 points in N.C. State’s previous two wins against the Terps, to beat them. The No. 1 pick in the 1975 NBA draft finished with 29 points, but only eight came after halftime. A motivated Burleson picked up the slack, taking advantage of Maryland’s focus on Thompson to lead all scorers with 38 points on 18-for-25 shooting.

“In that particular game, I have to take my hat off to him,” Elmore, who finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds, said last month of Burleson. “He hit everything that he put up there. Sometimes the ball hit every part of the rim before it went in, but it went in.”

“I made it a point that I was going to put some points on him, so I did,” Burleson said of his future Kansas City Kings teammate.

Driesell visited the N.C. State locker room after the game to congratulate Burleson and wish Coach Norm Sloan and the Wolfpack well in the NCAA tournament.

“I believe this is the toughest we’ll have it all the way through,” Towe told reporters. “At least I hope so. We beat the second-best team in the country tonight.”

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NCAA makes overdue change

Maryland’s third straight loss in the ACC championship game was especially painful. N.C. State fans sang the “Amen” chorus, Driesell’s victory song, after the win, as Sloan and the victorious Wolfpack players took turns cutting down pieces of the net. Maryland Athletic Director Jim Kehoe had to convince Driesell to keep his teary-eyed team on the court for the postgame ceremony.

“I’ve sat and watched it three years in a row, and they got kind of carried away out there today,” Driesell said afterward. “It took them 25 minutes to get set up. I just get tired of waiting.”

“It’s a shame there had to be a loser tonight,” Packer said in the somber Maryland locker room. “I hope the NCAA sees the light pretty soon and allows two or even three teams from the ACC to advance into the regionals if they meet the standards.”

Maryland declined an invitation to the NIT after taking a team vote.

“Our goal was to win the national championship, and we didn’t,” Driesell said. “Anything now would be a letdown. We showed we were among the top two or three teams in the nation. That was enough.”

“When we were sophomores, we had the whole world ahead of us,” McMillen told reporters of the decision. “Now it’s over. Most of the guys felt that winning it again wouldn’t be crucial to the program. And if we couldn’t get ourselves emotionally ready and we lost, it could ruin the prestige we’ve won this year.”

A few days after N.C. State ended his college career, McMillen suggested Maryland “would be wise” to leave the ACC, in part because the conference tournament had been held in the Tar Heel State every year since its inception.

“There are just too many odds against a non-North Carolina team in this league,” McMillen said. “… Greensboro isn’t a neutral court. Most of the fans are against you. Heck, they even booed us in the awards ceremony after we lost to State. For three years, I’ve seen what it is like to go down there and have the whole world against you. It’s not basketball anymore. The mental strain is tremendous.”

Two years later, the ACC tournament was held at Capital Centre in Landover for the first time.

N.C. State rolled through the 1974 NCAA tournament, routing Providence and Pittsburgh to reach the Final Four, which was held in Greensboro. In the national semifinals, the Wolfpack ended UCLA’s seven-year title run with an 80-77 double-overtime win. N.C. State knocked off Marquette, 76-64, in an anticlimactic national championship game.

“We played UCLA two overtimes in the national semifinals, but the Maryland game was tougher,” Sloan would say 10 years later. “It was as draining and exhilarating an experience as I’ve ever had.”

“[Maryland] should’ve had [an] opportunity,” Burleson said at a reunion featuring six players from the 1974 ACC championship game in Greensboro last year. “I mean, they were just that good. They could’ve won it just as well as we could. It was just sort of a twist of fate, and I feel like we were a team of destiny.”

Five months after N.C. State won the title, the NCAA announced a second team from any conference would be eligible for the 12 at-large spots in the expanded, 32-team NCAA tournament, beginning in 1975.

“I think it’s great,” Driesell said. “It may be a year too late for us. I wouldn’t quite call this the Maryland Rule, but we certainly influenced it a little bit. Our situation two of the last three years would be a perfect example of the purpose of the rule. … This is a big improvement. It should make the championship more meaningful and produce better ballgames in the regionals.”

Maryland swept the regular season series against N.C. State in 1974-75 and entered the ACC tournament ranked second in the country before being upset by No. 8 N.C. State in the semifinals. North Carolina received the ACC’s automatic bid after defeating the Wolfpack in the championship game. Two days later, Maryland received its first at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

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