Forty years on, it remains quite possibly the greatest college basketball game ever played. On the night of Mar. 9, 1974, No. 5 Maryland and No. 1 N.C. State dueled for the ACC Tournament title in Greensboro, N.C. The winner would move on to the NCAAs and quite possibly be favored to win the national championship. The loser would settle for the NIT in the last season before the tournament opened up to teams that hadn’t won their conferences.
Led by senior center Len Elmore and senior forward Tom McMillen, flamboyant coach Lefty Driesell’s Terps had gone 73-12 over the last three seasons. Maryland had cruised to the 1972 NIT title and had reached the NCAA Midwest Regional final in 1973 with N.C. State on probation.
State, led by high-flying forward David Thompson, was an incredible 53-1 over the last two years for coach Norm Sloan, losing only to defending national champion UCLA three months earlier. Five of those 53 victories had come over Maryland including a 76-74 escape in the 1973 ACC Tournament final in Greensboro.
But the Wolfpack still felt enormous pressure.
“We had lost one game in two seasons, we had won 32 straight ACC games, and yet one loss would mean we would never play in an NCAA tournament game,” explained 5-foot-5 point guard Monte Towe.
Of course, the Terps, playing just 77 miles from State’s campus, were the definite underdogs despite their lofty ranking and their 105-85 mauling the prevoius night of a North Carolina team that finished 12th in the rankings.
In the final, Maryland jumped out to a 13-point lead and still held a five-point margin at halftime. Thompson was struggling, but Tom Burleson, the Wolfpack’s 7-4 beanpole of center, was having a strong game as the Terps focused on stopping Thompson while also watching Towe’s outside shooting.
On a night when Maryland shot 61 percent from the field and State shot 55 percent in that pre-shot clock era, the game teetered back and forth in the second half. The Terps stole the ball as the Wolfpack was trying to hold for a final shot with the score tied at 97, but junior point guard John Lucas’ jumper at the buzzer didn’t fall.
The Terps were leading 100-99 with 2:16 left in overtime when Lucas missed the front end of a one-and-one – the last of only eight free throws that Maryland attempted compared to 26 for State. Sophomore sixth man Phil Spence then scored on an assist from Towe to give State the lead. When Lucas – who like Elmore, McMillen and junior shooting guard Mo Howard had played every second of the intense contest – turned the ball over with time running down, Maryland had to foul. Towe hit both shots and the Wolfpack had survived, 103-100.
Hounded by bigger Terps junior forwards Owen Brown and Tom Roy, Thompson had missed 14 of 24 shots, but Burleson had used his seven-inch height advantage on Elmore to pour in a career-high 38 points.
“We lost that game because of the unbelievable discrepancy in free throws,” maintained Elmore, who matched Burleson’s game-high 13 rebounds and scored 18 points, the same as Lucas and four shy of the team-high totals of McMillen and Howard.
As State’s players celebrated, Maryland’s wept.
“I told ’em not to cry, they should be proud,” said Driesell, who made a point of telling the Wolfpack, “You played one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen. I was proud of my team and I’m proud of you. You’re a great team. I hope you win the national championship. You deserve it.”
The Wolfpack did win the title, becoming the only team other than UCLA to do so in a nine-season stretch from 1967-75.
The Terps declined the invitation to the NIT, feeling that they had nothing to prove in the tournament for runnersup.
“Our only vindication was when State won the national championship and they said that we were the toughest team they had played,” Elmore said. “If we had played in the NIT again, our fear was that our minds would still be on the State game so we would lose to somebody inferior and the whole legacy would be gone.”
Instead, those 1974 Terps retain an aura of “what if?” mystery.
“Forty years later, people still talk about us and our team,” Elmore said. “Maryland won the national championship [in 2002], but we knew we might’ve gotten one, too, if the rules were different. And we were the team that got [the NCAA] to change the rules. I feel that we were the best team in Maryland history. As great as those [2001 and 2002 Final Four] teams were, I don’t think they could’ve beaten us.”
The Terps’ only other defeats that season came at No. 1 UCLA and at No. 4 Carolina. And other than the 1973 NCAA loss to Providence and their loss to the Tar Heels in Greensboro in the 1972 ACC final, no one except the Wolfpack (six times) beat them at home or on a neutral court in 57 tries during the entire McMillen & Elmore era. That’s an amazing record which not even Maryland’s Final Four teams can match.
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.
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