They played their first game as conference rivals in December 1954. Nearly 60 years later, Maryland and North Carolina will meet for the final time in a regular season Atlantic Coast Conference game tonight in Chapel Hill, N.C.
“It’s a chapter that’s going to end,” said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, who worked for four seasons under Carolina coach Roy Williams at Kansas. “North Carolina’s one of the premier programs in the country [and has been for decades]. They recruit well and he coaches well on top of it. It’s hard to stay on top.”
Much has changed during those six decades. The teams’ all-white rosters were integrated by Maryland’s Billy Jones in 1965 and by North Carolina’s Charlie Scott two years later. Cole Field House and Carmichael Auditorium are still standing on their respective campuses, but the teams now play in Comcast Center and Smith Center. Terps sophomore guard Seth Allen said the latter building is actually louder than Duke’s fabled Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Coaching legends Lefty Driesell of Maryland and Dean Smith of Carolina are both 82. The former hasn’t stomped on the sidelines in 11 years while the latter hasn’t complained to the officials for nearly 17.
Carolina, which has dominated the rivalry, has almost always cared more about its matchups with nearby Duke, and its other in-state rivals, N.C. State and Wake Forest, than it has about beating Maryland. And the Terps have generally wanted to beat the Blue Devils more than the Tar Heels ever since coach Mike Krzyzewski made Duke the ACC’s usual standard of excellence a quarter of a century ago.
The Terps (13-9, 5-4 ACC) and Tar Heels (14-7, 4-4) have both also underachieved so far, shrinking tonight’s spotlight. But make no mistake, there have been times when Maryland-Carolina was huge.
On Jan. 29, 1972, Driesell took his 12-2 Terps, led by sophomores Tom McMillen and Len Elmore, to Carmichael to face the veteran Tar Heels led by seniors Bill Chamberlain and Dennis Wuycik and junior Bob McAdoo. McMillen, who had spurned Smith and Carolina at the last minute as the top high school recruit two years earlier in that era of freshman teams, was wary of how he would be received.
Not only did Smith greet him warmly, the fans were muted. Maybe time had healed McMillen’s supposed sin. Or maybe they knew that the Tar Heels, who had been to three of the last five Final Fours, were on their way to another. Carolina cruised 92-72 as Maryland shot just 35 percent and committed 16 turnovers in the first half alone.
“We thought we were hot stuff and we could play with them, but we we went home with our tails between our legs,” Elmore said.
However, Terps have short tails and it was just 18 days until the rematch at Cole. Maryland was ranked 14th. Carolina was third.
“Carolina was the team to beat in the ACC,” McMillen said. “They were the benchmark. We had to earn our spurs against them.”
The Terps led 69-65 with 58 seconds left, but the Heels forced overtime. Maryland junior guard Howard White, who had missed six of his previous nine free throw attempts, hit two with seven seconds left for the 79-77 triumph in front of the then-largest crowd in ACC history.
Elmore relished it when Maryland’s excited fans stormed the court in celebration. He also cherishes the memory of his last game against the Tar Heels, a 105-85 rout in the 1974 ACC Tournament semifinals.
“We put a whipping on them,” he recalled fondly nearly 40 years later.
That was also the case the next year when guard John Lucas led Maryland to a 96-74 romp, its biggest margin ever at Carmichael.
Driesell and veteran play-by-play man Johnny Holliday will never forget the Terps’ first victory at Smith Center on Feb. 21, 1986 when senior forward Len Bias lit up the Heels for 35 points.
“In one stretch, Bias nailed a jumper, then stole the inbounds pass and [followed] with a reverse dunk,” Holliday marveled.
“Leonard just dominated,” Driesell said about the 77-72 overtime conquest which preceded an 88-75 Maryland triumph in the ACC Tournament.
Maryland memorably blew out Carolina in 2002 at Cole and prevailed in overtime in 2009 at Comcast behind guard Greivis Vasquez, but even with intense alum Gary Williams coaching the Terps, the games just weren’t quite the same as when Driesell and Smith had butted heads.
“Dean never recruited any of my players except for Tom McMillen, not even John Lucas and Buck Williams, who were from North Carolina,” Driesell said. “I recruited all of his players, but I didn’t get any of them except for Tom. Dean was a good coach, but he had great players.”
While successors Bob Wade and Gary Williams didn’t retain Driesell’s style of play, Smith was followed by long-time assistant Bill Guthridge, former Tar Heel Matt Doherty, and now by former aide Roy Williams.
“Eighty five percent of what coach Williams does is what coach Smith taught him and he’s smart enough to keep doing it,” said Turgeon, who’s 0-6 against his old boss. “We’re going to lose a great rivalry with North Carolina, but I’m sure we’re going to have a few good ones in the future.”
Probably they will, but for the fans who have followed the Terps for so long in the ACC, it’s sad that those rivalries will come in the Big Ten.
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.