Wednesday, March 9, 2011

March 9, 1974: Winner takes all

GREENSBORO, N.C. - With championship week in full swing right now, it's easy to get lost in all the euphoria of conference basketball tournaments. In the smaller conferences, the ones that only get one team into the NCAA tournament, the desperation and joy are in full force, the conference championship games turning into national championships of sort.

Imagine, then, if every conference tournament was that way. Imagine if every conference, big or small, only got to send one team to the NCAA tournament. How big would those conference tournaments seem then?

That was the case in 1974, when top-ranked North Carolina State met fourth-ranked Maryland in the ACC Tournament championship game. It was one of the most highly anticipated games in years, with the stakes incredibly high as the winner would play in the NCAA tournament, while the other would be stuck with the NIT.

Both teams came in incredibly talented. The 25-1 North Carolina State squad were led by center Tommy Burleson and guard David Thompson, both of whom would be top-3 picks in subsequent NBA drafts. Maryland, coming in at 23-4, featured three future No. 1 picks in Tom McMillen, Len Elmore, and John Lucas. In all, 10 future NBA draft picks were taking part in this game.

Maryland started out in command, using 60 percent shooting to lead by as many as 13 points in the first half. But as the game went on, NC State's biggest advantage began to show. As the regular-season champion in the ACC, the Wolfpack had gotten a first-round bye in the conference tournament and had only had to win one game to get to the title game. Maryland, meanwhile, had to win twice to get there and was now playing in its third game in as many days. Also, the Terrapins had somewhat controversially left their starters in late in the second half of a 20-point win over North Carolina the day before.

In the second half, NC State used its fresh legs to start to assert itself. While Maryland had been racing all over the court in the first half, suddenly NC State found itself winning the races down the floor in the second, and the Wolfpack was able to cut into Maryland's lead.

The game was tied at 97 as Maryland had the ball with a chance to win in the final seconds. With three seconds left, Maryland guard Mo Howard had an open shot on the baseline from 16 feet away. At the last moment, fearing that Burleson would block the shot, Howard passed across the court to Lucas, who had to put up an off-balance shot at the buzzer and missed.

Howard would come to rue that decision, as Maryland failed to make a field goal in the overtime period. NC State's Phil Spence made a layup late to give the Wolfpack a 101-100 lead, and Monte Towe clinched the win with a pair of free throws.

Inspired by their win, NC State went on to win the National Championship, ending UCLA's run of seven straight championships in the process. Devastated, Maryland declined an invitation to that year's NIT tournament, deciding instead to have their loss to NC State end their season.

The 1974 ACC Tournament was instrumental in causing the NCAA to expand its tournament from 25 to 32 teams the next year, opening the door for conferences to have multiple teams earn berths. That was little consolation to Maryland, which is still considered the best team to fail to make the NCAA tournament.

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