Asked this week to recall his most memorable North Carolina vs. N.C. State game, former Tar Heel star Phil Ford said there were too many to single out just one.
“It’s hard to pick one. We had some great games. We beat them twice in the ACC Tournament,” Ford said.
One of those two ACC Tournament wins was among the most significant in league history.
It was the 1974-75 ACC title game, Saturday March 8 in Greensboro Coliseum.
A 70-66 UNC win was a crowning moment in Ford’s college career. but more importantly it was also the final game of David Thompson’s incredible three-year varsity career for the Wolfpack.
Ford, then a freshman from Rocky Mount, had idolized Thompson just as Thompson had once dreamed of being an ACC player in the mold of Carolina’s Charles Scott and scores of young guards would yearn to be the next Ford.
One year earlier almost to the day – March 9, 1974 – Thompson and teammate Tommy Burleson had led the Wolfpack to a 103-100 overtime ACC title win over Maryland in the same Greensboro Coliseum.
Almost 40 years later, the 1974 game still is widely rated as the best game in college basketball history.
The 1975 title game had much the same tension.
UNC, seeded second, had opened the tournament with an amazing 101-100 overtime win over 7th-seeded Wake Forest – a game in which Ford scored 25 points, six fewer than teammate Walter Davis.
The Wolfpack was seeded fourth although its national ranking was 6th. Maryland, 10-2 and ranked fourth nationally, won the regular-season race with the 8th-ranked Tar Heels, unranked Clemson and the Wolfpack all tied for second at 8-4.
In a seven-team conference at the time only Virginia (12-13, 4-8) finished the season under .500.
In Friday night’s semifinals, Thompson scored 30 points as the Wolfpack took out Maryland. Thompson had opened the event with 38 points in a 91-85 win over Virginia.
Ford then poured in 29 points as UNC won again in overtime – 76-71 over Clemson – to set up a fourth meeting against the Pack.
UNC had lost two of the previous three – 82-67 on Jan. 4 in Greensboro’s Big Four Tournament and 88-85 in Raleigh on Jan. 18. The Heels had won 76-74 in Chapel Hill on Feb. 25.
As a senior at Rocky Mount High, Ford picked UNC over the Wolfpack, just as Thompson went with State over UNC (and Duke) four years earlier as a senior at Shelby Crest.
“When I was in high school, Carolina-State was ‘The Game,’ ” Ford said.
“Now the Duke-Carolina game is always publicized, but growing up in this state, State had had DT, Monte (Towe), Burl (Burleson) ... it was much more about Carolina-State. When I was playing, you’d hear about it from your friends, family. It was always The Game. It lost some of that intensity, but it’s still fun. Reynolds was a tough place to play. I remember that wolf would get to howling ...”
Entering the ’75 ACC title game, Thompson, Towe, Mo Rivers and Phil Spence had an 8-1 career series lead against the Heels. Burleson graduated after the ’74 NCAA title run and was an NBA rookie in Seattle in ’75.
Outside Greensboro Coliseum, there were hundreds of fans begging to buy tickets at outrageous scalping prices. A guy offered $300 for my press pass. When I said no, he countered with $400, then $500 and finally walked away saying, “That’s it then. Five hundred is all I’ve got on me.”
Inside, the building was so packed and hot that Thompson had severe leg cramps and eventually had to go to the locker room in the second half. He’d had the same problem in the semifinals against Maryland, but came back and dominated the game.
But later, Thompson said his “legs were gone” and the Wolfpack couldn’t contain Ford (24 points). Thompson finished with 16 points and teammate Kenny Carr had 16 points and 14 rebounds.
“If the refs call hand-checking, no one can stop Phil. He’s too quick,” UNC coach Dean Smith said.
The ACC’s lone automatic NCAA bid went to UNC as the league champion. Maryland got an at-large bid in the 32-team field, but leagues were limited to no more than two bids and most only got one.
The Pack was invited to the NIT but declined – in part because coach Norm Sloan asked his team to vote immediately after the disappointing loss.
So the Thompson collegiate saga ended right there, stopped by the freshman Ford and a UNC program that sensed new hope.
Thompson played on teams that went 27-0, 30-1 and 22-6. Six of the seven losses were against teams ranked no lower than 16th nationally.
The atmosphere in PNC Arena for Saturday’s first meeting of 2012-13 won’t the be same as it was that night in Greensboro. But Ford knows it’ll be a special night for both teams.
“Until you experience it, it’s hard to explain,” Ford said. “You can practice, and both teams practice hard to try to prepare, but you have to experience it … it’s going to be a crazy atmosphere on Saturday. State’s having a good year. They’ve become the hunted. The State fans are chomping at the bit for this.”
Assistant sports editor Chris Wright contributed to this column.