By Jim Sumner,
March 10, 2003 RALEIGH There have been almost 3,000 regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball games. Many of them were competitive contests played at the highest level. They helped players and coaches become household names. They were witnessed by a passionate and knowledgeable fan base. Beginning in the late 1950s, many of these games were televised first regionally, then nationally. They've made lots of money. Yet not one of these games directly determined either the official ACC champion or the automatic ACC representative in the NCAA Tournament. These duties are reserved for the ACC Tournament, a tense three- or four-day, winner-take-all slugfest.
Nowadays almost everyone has a tournament. Since 1975, conferences have been able to send more than one team to the Big Dance. But from 1954 through 1974, the tournament was the ACC's only point of entry to the NCAA. It also was the league's signature. With apologies to the old Southern Conference and the CIAA, no one else had anything like it. The ACC Tournament determined the official league champion and the official NCAA representative. It generated money, rabid fan interest, media attention and controversy. It also generated basketball of incredible intensity. Win and move on, lose and go home.
It would be nice to report that the ACC Tournament was the result of a master stroke of genius. The truth is a good bit more mundane. The ACC inherited its tournament from the Southern Conference and kept it largely through inertia, just to see what happened. What happened was an inaugural tournament in 1954 that was a competitive and financial success, thus ensuring its continuation.
The Southern Conference hosted its first tournament in 1922, and it really didn't have much of a choice. With as many as 17 teams, there simply was no other rational way to determine a champion. After the Georgia schools left in 1932, most of these tournaments were held in the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, with a capacity only a little larger than the average high school gym of today.
This all changed in 1946, when Everett Case took over at N.C. State. Case was a high school coaching legend in Indiana, a place where time stopped during the annual high school tournament. Vic Bubas, who played and coached for Case before becoming head coach at Duke, said: Case believed that tournament basketball was the way to go. It was the best way to determine a champion and the best way to promote the game. He brought that mentality with him.
Case's fast-paced brand of basketball was so popular that during his first year at State the Southern Conference Tournament was hastily moved to the much larger Duke Indoor Stadium in Durham. The tournament moved in 1951 to Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, where it became a Wolfpack playground. Case's Hoosier Hotshots won six consecutive Southern Conference titles. In 1953, Wake Forest edged State 71-70 in the final. Wake star Dickie Hemric remembered that game as the highlight of my basketball career. I still treasure the '53 title. We were pioneers in displacing Case in his dominance.
Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, N.C. State, South Carolina and Virginia left the Southern Conference to form the ACC in May 1953. Virginia joined later that year. The first ACC season was a scheduling nightmare, and the late-arriving Cavaliers played only four conference games. The other teams played between nine and 12. Duke finished first at 9-1, followed by Maryland at 7-2, Wake Forest at 8-4 and N.C. State at 5-3. Only a tournament could make sense of this.
But the ACC would have held one in any event. Irwin Smallwood was a Greensboro sportswriter in 1953. He also helped the league with publicity and its yearbooks. Smallwood said: Because of Case, the Southern Conference Tournament had become a money-maker. The fans loved it. Obviously, seven of the eight coaches loved it. It gave them a chance to keep playing. There was never any doubt about having a tournament.
In some respects, the 1954 ACC game didn't resemble that of today. The league was all-white; integration was more than a decade away. There wasn't much size; the conference had only two players taller than 6-7, and Virginia's tallest player was 6-4. There was no three-point shot, no shot clock, no TV timeouts, indeed no TV. The teams played four 10-minute quarters.
But there were key similarities. Most teams did play a fast-paced brand of ball. Duke averaged 83 points per game in 1954, and N.C. State about 80. Virginia's Buzz Wilkinson averaged more than 30 points per game. Hemric and Maryland's Gene Shue averaged more than 20 points per game, and both made more than half of their field goal attempts. The more compact ACC facilitated keener rivalries than existed in the Southern Conference. Basketball was still second fiddle to football in most area schools, but it was closing fast. The ACC Tournament helped eliminate that gap.
The ACC Tournament was held at Reynolds Coliseum until 1967. Compared to most of the alternatives, Reynolds was positively palatial and it was centrally located. Duke's Bernie Janicki probably spoke for a decade's worth of ACC players when he lamented: It was a tremendous advantage for State, and we all knew it. But we all knew we couldn't do anything about it. Money talks.
Case would get his players to focus by taking them to an area motel where, in the words of sophomore guard Vic Molodet, the coaching staff would concentrate on the basics. Boring stuff like making a good bounce pass or blocking out on the boards. In other words, stuff that wins games.
State players had been coached to look forward to the conference tournament. They believed they owned it. For Molodet, the new league was just business as usual, basically the same tournament, but even for State there was still the relentless pressure. Every game was a knuckle-biter. A grinder on every play, every game. It was a helluva lot of pressure.
Nevertheless, anyone could walk right up and purchase a ticket to the two afternoon games that tipped off the tournament. Attendance was about 7,000. The first game matched Wake Forest and South Carolina. One writer labeled it an inartistic struggle.
Wake Forest boasted the league's first player of the year, 6-6, 227-pound center Hemric. He was strong and relentless. Molodet said Hemric didn't have any finesse and didn't need any. If he got the ball where he wanted it, there wasn't much you could do. Hemric said: I was a pretty big man for those days. I could handle myself pretty well due to my strength. I expected to be double-teamed. It didn't bother me.
South Carolina cooperated with Hemric's expectations. The Gamecocks packed a 2-3 zone inside and dared the Deacons to score from the perimeter. Wake's Lowell Lefty Davis and Billy Lyles responded with 3-19 and 3-13 performances, respectively. South Carolina led 30-20 at the half and was poised for the first tournament upset. It all fell apart when Lee Collins, their best big man, fouled out. Hemric exploded and Wake tied the game at 51. South Carolina held the ball for the last 1:11 but missed the last shot. Wake took its first lead of the game in overtime on a Davis jumper. Hemric scored inside twice to break a 53-53 tie, and Wake held on for a 58-57 win. Hemric scored 21 points and pulled down 15 rebounds.
The next two games were laughers. In the afternoon session, Maryland coasted over Clemson 75-59 behind Shue's 28 points. In the first night game, top-seeded Duke defeated Virginia 96-68, placing five players in double figures. Wilkinson scored 42 points, shooting 13-for-44 from the field. It wasn't an unusual outing for Wilkinson, who attempted 767 field goals and 306 free throws in 27 games that season.
The final game of the first day was the most eagerly anticipated. Not only was N.C. State in the unaccustomed position of fourth place, but the Wolfpack was matched against a feisty North Carolina team. The Tar Heels had hired Frank McGuire in 1952 to beat Case, and he took that responsibility seriously. McGuire didn't have the horses yet, but that didn't stop him from publicly declaring open war against Everett Case earlier that season, after Case used the full-court press a little more than McGuire thought necessary. Molodet and others maintained that Case and McGuire embellished their feud for promotional purposes, but the fans and at least some of the players definitely believed the hype.
By the time the two rivals tipped off, Rey-nolds was close to capacity. Both teams played cautiously. State attempted to pull McGuire's team out of its zone defense, but without success. Unheralded UNC guard Skippy Winstead, all 150 pounds of him, kept his team in the game with 25 points.
With six minutes left, State went into the deep freeze with the ball and a 47-43 lead. The Wolfpack went the last eight minutes of the game without a field goal. A pair of turnovers led to three UNC points. Ronnie Shavlik and Molodet each made a pair of free throws to keep State ahead. A North Carolina field goal cut the lead to 51-50. With eight seconds left, UNC's Tony Radovich leveled State's Dave Gotkin, who responded by throwing the ball at Radovich. Gotkin was called for a technical foul, Radovich was ejected, and the ACC Tournament almost had its first riot.
Gotkin made one of his two free throws. UNC's Jerry Vayda made the single technical foul shot, making the score 52-51. Shavlik controlled the subsequent jump ball. Gotkin was fouled with four seconds left. He missed his free throw, but teammate Herb Applebaum controlled the rebound and dribbled out the clock. State escaped with a pulsating 52-51 win.
The semifinals produced two more nail-biters. This time they did so in front of a sell-out crowd of 12,400. Duke had defeated State twice that season but needed to win a third time to keep its season alive. There was little holding of the ball in this contest. Duke led 41-40 at the half. The game was tied 61-61 after three periods, when the Blue Devils went cold. They scored only two points in the first 5:30 of the fourth period and fell behind 73-63. Janicki led a furious comeback, but State salted away the 82-78 victory from the foul line. Shavlik led State with 22 points and 18 rebounds. State outshot Duke 50-25 from the line, as the Devils were whistled for 31 fouls.
The other semifinal matched Wake Forest and Maryland. This game, more deliberate than its predecessor, was tied 29-29 at the half. The two stars lived up to their billing. Hemric dominated inside, with 23 points and 17 rebounds. Shue, who would become the first former ACC player to star in the NBA, scored 25 points, including an 11-for-11 performance from the line. In fact, the Terps missed only one of 23 free throws that day.
The game was tied at 50 with 1:24 left when Maryland decided to hold the ball for the final shot. Shue was forced out of his range and missed a long jumper at the buzzer. Hemric staked Wake to an early lead in the overtime, and Wake made 10 free throws down the stretch for a 64-56 win.
The title game between N.C. State and Wake Forest matched two schools then located only a few miles apart, since Wake's move to Winston-Salem hadn't yet occurred.
State used its superior quickness to open up a 39-31 halftime lead. Led by senior Mel Thompson, the Wolfpack extended the lead to 60-45 late in the third period. At that point, Wake came out of its zone and began attacking State. The change-of-pace worked. Davis and Lyles began hitting from the outside, while Hemric outplayed Shavlik down low. Poor State foul shooting brought their offense to a halt; State made only 18 of 33. The game was tied at 70-70 with 2:08 left when Wake controlled a jump ball. This time it was Wake's turn to hold the ball for the last shot. Lyles missed a long jumper, but Davis corralled the rebound and went up hard for the follow-shot. Shavlik blocked it, Davis got it back and another follow-shot hung tantalizingly on the rim before dropping off. Hemric still maintains that Davis was fouled on both shots.
Wake entered its third overtime game in three days, as Hemric played all 135 minutes. He said later: I didn't think too much about it. That's just the way it was in those days. We didn't get much rest. In fact four of Wake's starters went the distance in the title game, while four of State's starters played at least 43 minutes.
The overtime was a classic. A Shavlik field goal and a Thompson free throw gave State a 73-70 lead early in the extra period, but Wake hung tough. Twice Molodet made a pair of free throws to put State up by three, only to have a Davis field goal cut the lead to one. When Al DePorter stole the ball from Dick Tyler and laid it in, Wake was up 78-77. Shavlik answered inside to put State back atop with 1:16 left. State tightened its defense and Wake came up empty on its next two trips, while State made three free throws. A Lyles layup at the buzzer made the final score 82-80. Thompson led all scorers with 29 points, three more than Hemric and Davis. Afterward, Case lamented that he should have held the ball with a big lead in the second half but wanted to give the fans their money's worth.
An exhausted State team defeated George Washington in the NCAA Tournament a mere two days later. The Wolfpack then lost to eventual national champion LaSalle.
Most fans clearly felt they had received their money's worth. The fans voted with their feet and the tournament was soon a sell-out, at least for the last two days. Certainly, the first tournament has rarely been equaled for competitiveness. Three of the seven games went to overtime, and two others were decided by one and four points. Bubas said: There was no question that the tournament would be continued. By that time, it was simply ingrained. Everything was a success.
Indeed it was. The ACC Tournament would go on to generate legendary games, great players and soon-to-be national champions. While other conferences chose their official champions in mundane 12-, 14- or 16-game schedules, ACC teams staked it all on a single all-or-nothing weekend.
The league sometimes paid a competitive price. From 1954 through 1974, when only one team from a conference could go to the NCAA Tournament, the top-seeded team won the tournament 15 times. On three occasions (all N.C. State), the winner was on probation and the tournament runner-up went. Thus, the top-seeded team advanced 12 times. Ten of those teams advanced to the Final Four. Nine times the ACC did not send its top seed to the NCAA Tournament. None of those teams made the Final Four.
Clearly, the ACC felt that the financial and publicity benefits of the tournament outweighed the costs of keeping potential title teams home. Even today, with at least a third of the league likely to take spots in the NCAA, the tradition-laden tournament remains one of the toughest tickets in sports.
Nevertheless, it's not the same. As Bubas says about the old days, It may not have been fair, but it certainly was exciting.
Jim Sumner is Curator of Sports and Historian at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh and a freelance writer. He is the author of two books and numerous articles on southern sports history. He lives in Raleigh.