Lefty Driesell points out the Maryland squad he coached was playing its third game in three days, while a bye in the quarterfinals left N.C. State the fresher team. “We were definitely gassed,” agreed Len Elmore, one of four Terrapins who played all 45 minutes of regulation and overtime. Both also mentioned the unfairness of facing a North Carolina-based team in Greensboro, a longstanding sore point addressed two years later when the ACC began moving its tournament around the region, settling first in Landover, Md.
Yet the disappointment of losing 103-100 in the do-or-die 1974 ACC tournament championship game, a contest celebrated as the greatest in league history, has not crystalized into bitterness.
Rather, Driesell and Elmore savor the memory of a great series: six games over two seasons between top-10 teams, all of which went N.C. State’s way during a 57-1 run unmatched in ACC history. And they agree with Billy Hahn, a reserve guard on the ’74 Maryland team, that one factor separated the squads and earned their undying admiration.
“It was a very intense rivalry, and both teams were so evenly matched, but unfortunately we were the team that always came up just a bit short all the time,” said Hahn, now an assistant coach at West Virginia. “To be honest with you, during that whole series we had a nightmare of a time stopping or trying to hold David Thompson down. He was the unbelievable part of that whole series.”
The Terps tried to check the 6-foot-4 Thompson with big men and guards, but to no apparent effect. In six games between the teams in 1973 and 1974, the versatile wing averaged 26.2 points. “He just busted everybody’s tail,” Hahn said. “I don’t think we ever stopped him.”
Thompson, still recognized as the greatest player in ACC history, was among five first-round NBA draft picks on the court when the ’74 ACC title was decided. He was the No. 1 pick in 1975. Maryland guard John Lucas went No. 1 in 1976. In all, eight players in that title game were taken in the first four rounds of the pro draft.
The pace in the championship game was brisk, the offensive efficiency impressive. Maryland shot 63.4 percent in the first period and led 55-50 at halftime. For the game the Terps hit 61 percent of their 77 shots. The Wolfpack made 55 percent of 80 attempts.
“Surprisingly, it was good defense,” Elmore insisted. The 6-9 New Yorker, a first team All-ACC selection, was noted for his defensive prowess. So it was particularly notable that the offensive star of the championship game was not Thompson, but 7-4 Tom Burleson, whom Elmore guarded. Burleson had 38 points, tied for second-most in an ACC final. Afterward Elmore marveled, “He’s a great ball player, but 38 points against me is unbelievable.”
Driesell recalled that Burleson fed off a classic motivational slight – he finished second to Elmore in voting as the ACC’s best center. “We were looking at the film, he came out for the introductions all fired up, jumping up and down,” Driesell said of the Wolfpack senior. “He just had a great game. I’m sure he’s got a tape of it, and he should have.”
Burleson’s big game? Thank DT
Any competitor dislikes losing, even if it’s in a classic game that over the decades has taken on mythic proportions, growing in popular imagining from one extra period to two and from 19 turnovers to none. Thus Elmore, a retired attorney and now a TV basketball game analyst, is both gracious and hard-eyed in analyzing the championship contest.
He asserted the 26-8 free throw discrepancy in the Wolfpack’s favor was a key factor in determining the outcome. And, with a recall of detail far more facile than that of Driesell or Hahn, he said Burleson benefited greatly from playing off Thompson’s presence.
“I tip my hat to Tommy for the game he had, but he was able to get great position every time because he and David were on opposite sides many times,” Elmore said. “I’m playing the help to close the driving lanes for David and the ball gets swung, and by the time I get back to Burleson he’s deep in the paint. And people keep forgetting he had a 7-inch advantage over me.”
Elmore also insisted that, in an era when neither the ACC nor the NCAA recognized blocked shots as a statistical category, he was unfairly penalized by officials prone to translate blocks into goaltending calls. “I got frustrated in that league because they had never seen a shot blocker,” said Elmore, who played in the NBA for 10 years. “I was probably the first real, consistent shot blocker the ACC had ... and a lot of times those guys didn’t know how to call it.”
Terps: No use for NIT this time
Once the fourth-ranked Terrapins lost to N.C. State, they confronted a virtual competitive dead end. The NCAA allowed a single team from each conference to go to its tournament, meaning Maryland was excluded. “To have two of the top four teams in the country in the same conference and only one of them gets to go to the tournament, and then you look at the other folks that were given invites, that was highly frustrating,” Elmore said.
The only option afforded the ’74 Terps was a visit to the then-estimable NIT, which they had won in 1972 with several of the same players. An invitation was extended as soon as the defeated Maryland squad settled into what Hahn recalled as “a very quiet, very quiet” locker room.
But while Driesell was eager to go, his players demurred. “It was such a disappointment, I think it was a total team agreement, let’s end the season right now,” Hahn said of losing the ACC tournament final. “It was almost like, we’re the second-best team in America, what do we have to prove?”
Elmore, who along with Tom McMillen served as team spokesmen, agreed it was an easy decision to go home rather than participate in the NIT in the “emotionally devastating” aftermath of the N.C. State defeat.
“I figured we could possibly go into that tournament not emotionally ready to win it because we’d already won it,” Elmore said. “We were already let down. We’d be watching the NCAA tournament saying ‘We should be there, we should be there.’ Next thing you know, an inferior team sneaks up and beats us. Now our whole legacy, our whole place in history, is gone because we go to the postseason and we get beat by somebody we should have beaten.”
Maryland’s inability to participate in the NCAAs was so glaringly inequitable, the following year the tournament’s admissions standards were liberalized to allow multiple entrants from the same league. Driesell would go another decade before winning an ACC tournament. And the legacy of perhaps his finest squad, the 23-5 Terps of 1974, became one of promise unfulfilled, defined as much by the team that blocked its path as by its own considerable achievements.