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Acc In The Ncaa Tournament: Injuries, Fatigue, Maryland, Ucla — Nothing Could Stop 1974 Wolfpack

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Doug Herakovich
For The ACC Sports Journal

March 15, 2004 THE 1973-1974 SEASON RALEIGH — When preseason practices started for the 1973-74 basketball season, N.C. State was one of the country's mystery teams. The Wolfpack had devoured all of its foes and completed an undefeated season the previous year, but NCAA probation locked the Pack out of the Big Dance. In 1973, the darling of the dance was still UCLA. John Wooden's Bruins had created a dynasty for the ages, winning their seventh straight national championship (and ninth in the past 10 years) in 1973. A year later, big Bill Walton was heading into his senior season, and the Bruins were riding a mammoth 78-game winning streak. Facing The UCLA Dynasty The season started with UCLA ranked No. 1, and the Wolfpack was lurking at No. 2. The college basketball world revolved around Westwood, but State clearly had the weapons to challenge the Bruins. Coach Norm Sloan's backcourt featured Morris “Moe” Rivers and the classic point guard, 5-7 Monte Towe. Tommy Burleson, the “Newland Needle,” was a towering 7-4 presence in the paint, and the combination of Tim Stoddard and Phil Spence added muscle at the power forward spot. The spotlight, of course, fell on David Thompson. No. 44 had proven to be a peerless talent as a sophomore in 1972-73, when the 6-4 wunderkind with the 42-inch vertical leap averaged 24.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game on his way to earning ACC player of the year honors. He also became the youngest Associated Press All-American ever in 1973. While the high-flying Thompson was introducing the nation to a new style of basketball, UCLA's Walton was still the apple of America's eye. The 1973 national player of the year, the big redhead was considered by most observers the linchpin for the country's finest team. That observation gained credence on Dec. 15, 1973, when top-ranked UCLA and No. 2 N.C. State engaged in one of the first made-for-television games, in St. Louis. The NCAA wouldn't let the teams meet in the 1973 NCAA Tournament, so television brought them together nine months later. Walton picked up his fourth foul with 11 minutes remaining in the first half, and he sat on the bench for the next 21 minutes of action. State, however, failed to take advantage. The Pack held a 33-32 halftime edge, and the score was knotted at 54-54 when Walton stepped back onto the court with 9:54 left. UCLA immediately started a 17-2 run, and the Bruins never looked back. UCLA rolled to an 84-66 triumph, and the king was still wearing the crown. The loss ended a 29-game Wolfpack winning streak, but it ultimately may have helped N.C. State win its first national championship. “The defeat,” Sloan remembered years
later, “caused all of us to stop and take stock of ourselves.” Maryland's ACC Challenge The Pack rebounded with three victories, and then State started the new year at the Big Four Tournament in Greensboro. The fifth-ranked Wolfpack squared off against fourth-ranked North Carolina in the opening round, and two Towe free throws with 18 seconds remaining lifted NCSU to a 78-77 win. After crushing Wake Forest 91-73 in the Big Four final, State prepared for another huge game. The 1973-74 season was, in many ways, a tale of two rivalries for the Wolfpack. State was trying to unseat UCLA on the national level, and a talented Maryland team was battling to pull N.C. State off the top rung of the ACC ladder. Maryland came to Reynolds Coliseum on Super Bowl Sunday as the nation's third-ranked team, and coach Lefty Driesell's bunch was anxious to knock off the Pack on national television. The Terrapins' lineup was loaded, with guard John Lucas and big men Tom McMillen and Len Elmore leading the way. Maryland had plenty of stars, but this Super Sunday belonged to N.C. State's superstar. Thompson was tremendous from the opening tip, and he finished the game with 41 points on 14-of-20 shooting from the field. State next went to Chapel Hill and cemented its hold over a very good North Carolina team that was led by senior forward Bobby Jones. Thompson delivered 26 points and 10 rebounds, and Towe added 21 points while directing the show flawlessly in an 83-80 victory. The Wolfpack would handle Carolina again later in the season in Raleigh, 83-72, when Burleson posted 22 points and 11 rebounds. The 1973-74 campaign proved to be a season of frustration for UNC. Although Dean Smith's superb club was ranked in the top five nationally for much of the year, the Tar Heels were doomed to finish third in the ACC, behind State and Maryland. The regular-season ACC game of the year was set for College Park, and once again it proved to be the David Thompson Show. The Wolfpack led 36-35 at halftime, and then Thompson exploded for 31 second-half points (he had 39 for the game) and State strolled to an 86-80 victory. The Pack closed out the regular season with an unblemished conference record. However, State did hit a minor bump in the road prior to the start of the ACC Tournament. Burleson, who averaged 18.1 points and 12.2 rebounds per game for the season, was left off the first team of the All-ACC squad. The unit included Thompson, Towe, UNC's Jones, and Maryland's Lucas and Elmore. The inclusion of Elmore, the Terps' center, applied an especially sharp needle in Burleson's side. “It leaves you with a feeling,” Burleson said at the time, “that you haven't completely proven yourself.” Game Of The Century? Burleson would clearly prove his point in the championship game of the ACC Tournament in Greensboro. State earned a first-round bye, and then the Pack pummeled Virginia 87-66. In the other semifinal, Maryland routed North Carolina 105-85. The two titans then prepared to meet each other for the title. The result was one of the greatest collegiate games ever played. The tremendous pre-game intensity was sky-high for a number of reasons: p The Talent Level: How good were the two teams? Six of the players in the game earned All-America honors at some point in their careers, and an amazing 11 players from the game eventually were drafted by the NBA. Only one starter — N.C. State's Stoddard — was not drafted by the NBA. Stoddard actually signed a professional baseball contract before he was eligible for the NBA draft, and he later pitched for the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. p The Rivalry: Maryland and N.C. State had been going nose-to-nose for two years, and the Terps desperately wanted to unseat the Wolfpack. Driesell, who was in his fifth year in College Park, already was tagged with a “can't win the big one” label, and many of those “big ones” had come against State. The Pack had won five straight in the series during the Thompson era. p The Stakes: This game was for much, much more than just the ACC title. In 1974, only 25 teams advanced to the NCAA Tournament, and each conference could send only one representative. If you won the ACC Tournament, you advanced. If you lost, hello NIT. “There was a tremendous amount of pressure,” Towe said. “We had played so well for two years and had not lost a conference game, but if we didn't beat Maryland, everything we had done would be in vain.” Burleson's exclusion from the All-ACC squad added even more fuel to the fire. Burleson always played better with a chip on his shoulder, and Sloan wasn't going to miss this opportunity. “Elmore said he deserved first team rather than me, that I wasn't fit to carry his shoes into the gym, that he had always been much better,” Burleson said. “Coach Sloan taped that on my locker, so it was personal as well as for the team.” During the two regular-season meetings, Thompson dominated the game. He scored a total of 80 points in those two matchups, and he added 29 in the ACC championship game. Thompson's performance, however, was eclipsed by Burleson's awesome effort. Tall Tommy tallied 38 points (on 18-of-25 shooting from the floor) and added 13 rebounds. Even the dazzling performances by Burleson and Thompson weren't enough to put away the determined Terps. Maryland connected on 12 of its first 14 field goal attempts, and that gave Driesell's crew a 25-12 advantage. State gradually fought back, cutting the margin to five at halftime. At the end of regulation, the score was even at 97-97. In overtime, fatigue became a factor. Both teams used only seven players, and Maryland had four players — Elmore, Lucas, McMillen and Mo Howard — who played the entire 45 minutes. For State, Thompson logged 43 minutes, Rivers went 42, Towe 41 and Burleson 39. The frantic paced slowed, and the game turned into a torturous, possession-by-possession affair that had the fans gasping for air. Finally, Towe connected on both ends of a pressure-packed one-and-one opportunity, and State had secured a 103-100 victory. “It's still the greatest basketball game I've ever seen,” Sloan said in 1999. “You had two teams that scored 100 points, and there were very few turnovers in the game.” Driesell was equally moved by the contest. Following the game, he went into the Wolfpack locker room and congratulated the victors. His greatest praise was directed at Burleson. “That's the greatest game I've ever seen a big man play,” the Maryland coach told Burleson. “That's one heck of an effort, Tommy. You guys go on now and win the whole thing.” Thompson's Famous Scare State entered the 1974 NCAA Tournament as the nation's top-ranked team, with UCLA looming at No. 2. State also had the advantage of hosting the Eastern Regional in Reynolds Coliseum, and the Final Four was slated for Greensboro. The first order of business for the Pack, however, was fifth-ranked Providence. The Friars had coach Dave Gavitt and All-American post player Marvin Barnes, but they were no match for the Wolfpack. NCSU rolled to a 92-78 triumph. The second-round victory over Pittsburgh isn't remembered for the score (100-72). It is remembered for one play. Midway through the first half, Thompson took flight down the lane, but he collided with Spence. Thompson crashed to the court head-first, and he lay unconscious for four minutes, as a small pool of blood formed under his head. An eerie silence took hold of the Coliseum crowd. “That was something that I'll never forget,” said Wally Ausley, who was State's play-by-play radio announcer for 29 years. “We were sitting up in the booth, and we didn't really know if he was dead or alive. We weren't alone.” Thompson eventually regained consciousness and was taken to the hospital. He received 15 stitches for a cut on the back of his head, and he returned to Reynolds to watch most of the second half with a bandage around his head. Upon re-entering the Coliseum, he heard one of the loudest ovations in the history of the legendary arena. Once Pittsburgh had been dispatched and Thompson was declared healthy, the buildup began for State's semifinal meeting with UCLA. Thousands of fans gathered at Reynolds to watch the Wolfpack work out, and the anticipation reached a fever pitch once the team arrived in Greensboro. More Bruins, In Double OT While the N.C. State-UCLA game wasn't as well played as the State-Maryland matchup, it may have been even more exciting. The two teams were tied 35-35 at halftime, before the Bruins went on a 14-3 run at the start of the second period. Midway through the half, the Wolfpack responded with a 10-point spurt that cut the UCLA edge to one at 57-56. The final minutes of regulation play were tight, and the scoreboard read 65-65 when the buzzer sounded. In the first overtime frame, both teams scored two points, before State elected to hold the ball for a final shot. The Pack's last-second attempt failed, and the game headed into a second overtime. In the opening moments of the second overtime, it appeared that UCLA was on its way to yet another championship. The Bruins scored the first seven points of the period, and time was running out on the Wolfpack. “We were down seven points, and for some reason John Wooden called timeout,” Sloan said. “They had the ball out of bounds, and I didn't know what to say to my team. I just told them, ‘Well, we're down seven and there's 2:07 left. Somebody better make something good happen quickly.' It wasn't any brainstorm on my part.” Towe ended up being the “somebody” for N.C. State. After Walton inbounded the ball for UCLA, Towe jumped in front of the Bruins center and drew a foul. Towe made two free throws to cut the lead to five points, and then Thompson stole the ball in the backcourt. Thompson tipped in a missed shot to make it 74-71, and suddenly State was back in the game. After a UCLA free throw, Burleson gathered in an offensive rebound and laid it in to cut the margin to 75-73. The Bruins then tried to spread the floor to hold the ball, but Stoddard intercepted a pass, and the Pack had an opportunity to tie the score. Burleson converted one of two free throws, and then UCLA's David Myers missed on the front end of a one-and-one opportunity with 1:16 remaining. At that point, Thompson stepped forward. He made a driving hoop to put State up 76-75, and then he was fouled when he grabbed a rebound following a UCLA miss. Thompson's two free throws with 34 seconds to play gave the Pack a three-point lead, and State went on to post a historic 80-77 triumph. The stars shined in Greensboro, with Walton contributing 29 points and 18 rebounds while playing all 50 minutes. Thompson finished with 28 points and 10 boards. Burleson netted 20 points with 14 rebounds. “We recognize UCLA as one of the greatest basketball teams of all time,” Sloan said after the battle, “but I told my players before the season they had a chance to be one of the greatest ever.” Secure Place In History The Wolfpack took the final step toward immortality when State whipped Marquette 76-64 in the national championship game. The seventh-ranked Warriors kept the game close until two technical fouls on coach Al McGuire ignited a 10-0 NCSU run late in the first half. When the final seconds clicked off the clock, the Pack had its first national title, and a wild celebration broke out in Raleigh. An estimated 6,000 fans closed down Hillsborough Street following the game, and 8,000 fans gathered in Reynolds Coliseum to honor the team the next day. When Sloan died in December 2003 at the age of 77, many of his former players — including several from the 1974 national championship team — made their way to Raleigh for his funeral. Towe (New Orleans) and Spence (North Carolina Central) spoke of his powerful influence on them as young men and future coaches. Burleson and Thompson also were among those on hand to honor Sloan, who often had spoken of the many reasons he held his NCAA title team in the highest regard. “Those players complemented each other so well. It was truly a team,” Sloan said in 1999. “We did have a superstar in David, and what I thought was a tremendous collegiate center in Tommy, but the key was the way they complemented each other. That's what, in my opinion, made them one of the greatest college teams of all time.” Another version of this article appeared in the March 1999 edition of the ACC Sports Journal. Sports Journal editor Dave Glenn also contributed to both reports.