When Lefty Driesell took command of Maryland’s basketball program in 1969, the Terps hadn’t been ranked in more than eight years and had won more than 15 games in just one of the previous 11 seasons.
That record of mediocrity didn’t prevent the brash 47-year-old coach from declaring that he was going to make Maryland the “UCLA of the East” even though the Bruins had won five of the past six national championships.
“We loved it, UCLA of the East,” Driesell recalled recently. “I think it helped me recruit. We set high goals and we were gonna try to accomplish ‘em. UCLA was really good, but so was N.C. State and so was North Carolina.”
And by the time that Driesell’s Terps finally met the legendary John Wooden’s Bruins 40 years ago this past Sunday, so was Maryland.
Freshmen were still ineligible to play varsity hoops when the Terps cruised to the 1972 NIT title behind their sophomore stars, ace rebounder and shot-blocker Len Elmore and smooth-shooting big man Tom McMillen. The NCAA Tournament had only 25 entrants, all conference champions including East Regional winner Carolina.
State was the ACC’s powerhouse in 1973 but was on NCAA probation, so runner-up Maryland went to the tournament, falling to Providence in the East Regional final before UCLA extended its title streak to seven.
The fourth-ranked Terps were going to begin Elmore’s and McMillen’s senior season, 1973-74, on the road against the top-ranked Bruins, who were led by All-American center Bill Walton. UCLA had won a record 76 consecutive games at Pauley Pavilion.
Since the NBA’s Capital Bullets were practicing and playing at Maryland’s Cole Field House while the Capital Centre was being completed nearby, Driesell got some of the pros to work with the Terps. Hall of Famer-in-waiting Wes Unseld helped Elmore prepare to defend Walton, who had made 21 of 22 shots in the 1973 NCAA final.
At the suggestion of sophomore shooting guard Mo Howard, Driesell also had Maryland hold some practices at midnight to prepare for the 9 pm start in Los Angeles. That’s how the now-traditional “Midnight Madness” to the start of college basketball season began.
“We were motivated because it was our last chance and we wanted to make the most of it,” said Elmore, who had played the final month of his junior year with a broken toe on his right foot “That whole summer I watched the tape of UCLA playing Memphis State [in the national title game], particularly focusing on Bill. I could see him in my sleep. I could see his drop-step to the baseline, his little hook, his turnaround jumper. I expected him to be as efficient a player as I would ever meet, but I didn’t think he was Superman. I took a lot of pride in my defense.”
While Elmore readied to battle Walton, McMillen was waiting to hear if he had been chosen to continue his studies at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and preparing for the imminent death of his ailing father.
“It was a very tough month for me,” recalled McMillen, who did win the Rhodes and remains the only Maryland student ever selected. “My father was very sick and he ended up dying a couple of weeks after the game. I missed my finals in some very tough courses. I probably wasn’t playing my best basketball.”
That was evident against the Bruins as he and standout sophomore playmaker John Lucas combined to miss 18 of 23 shots as the Terps fell behind 65-57 with just 3:37 remaining. But they scored the next seven points, and when UCLA freshman Richard Washington missed a one-and-one, the visitors had the ball and 22 seconds to pull off the upset.
Elmore had been Maryland’s most effective weapon with 19 points and 14 rebounds while Walton registered 18 points and a staggering 27 boards but made just eight of 24 shots. However, Driesell called for “The Special,” a pick-and-roll on the right side of the court with Lucas and McMillen. Lucas was supposed to drive and dish to McMillen at the top of the key if his path to the basket was blocked.
“[UCLA’s] Dave Meyers hand-checked John out of bounds, but [official] Booker Turner didn’t call a foul and that was the end of the game,” Elmore remembered vividly four decades later. “I remember shedding some tears. It was probably a combination of anger and sadness. I was so emotionally peaked for that game. We should’ve won.”
Said Driesell, “The only thing bad about that game was we lost.”
Maryland went on to win 23 of its remaining 27 games with one loss to No. 4 Carolina and the other three to State, the last by 103-100 in triple overtime in the ACC Tournament final. While the Wolfpack would beat UCLA in the national semis and claim the championship against Marquette, the Terps were done after Greensboro, opting against a return trip to the NIT because they had been there, done that.
Elmore and McMillen finished their college careers with a 73-17 record. Their .811 winning percentage remains Maryland’s best three-year run, topping even that of the team that won the school’s only national championship in 2002 a year after reaching its first Final Four.
Of course, those Gary Williams-coached Terps wouldn’t even have played in the NCAAs if not for the valiant fight that Elmore, McMillen and Co. waged against State in the 1974 ACC title game.
“We might’ve played UCLA again if the NCAA had come to their senses and realized that the No. 4 team in the country should not be denied an opportunity to play in the tournament, especially when the team they lose to is No. 1,” Elmore said.
The NCAA did realize that, but too late for Elmore and McMillen. In 1975, the tournament was opened to teams that didn’t win their conferences, setting the stage for what has become “March Madness.”
So while McMillen, whose 20.5 points per game remains the Terps’ benchmark, and Elmore, who remains the school’s career rebounding leader, never made a Final Four, they retain a special place in Maryland basketball history.
“We took a program that wasn’t much of a national program and really put it on the map,” said McMillen, who played 11 seasons in the NBA after the Rhodes, served three terms as a Congressman from Maryland and currently is the CEO of the Homeland Security Corporation in Virginia. “I’m very proud of my teammates and how successful they’ve been after basketball.”
That includes Elmore, who played two seasons in the ABA and eight in the NBA despite major knee surgery. He earned a law degree from Harvard, worked as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn and currently analyzes college games for CBS. Both he and McMillen have served on the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and on boards at their alma mater.
“Tom and Len got us started as a program,” said Driesell, who left College Park under pressure in 1986 after the overdose of former star Len Bias but went on to coach James Madison and Georgia State to the NCAAs. “Maryland has a great reputation now because of them.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.