On Dec. 3, 1953, Maryland, coached by fourth-year boss Bud Millikan, won its debut game in the new Atlantic Coast Conference, 53-49 at South Carolina. Sixty years, three months and 10 days later, an era could come to an end this afternoon when third-year coach Mark Turgeon’s eighth-seeded Terrapins tangle with ninth-seeded Florida State in an ACC Tournament second-round game in Greensboro.
Maryland has only won the tournament three times during those six decades: in 1958 when sophomore big men Charles McNeil and Al Bunge led the way for Millikan, the only coach outside of the state of North Carolina to capture the conference title during the first 27 tourneys; in 1984 when future All-American Len Bias dominated for Lefty Driesell; and in 2004 when sophomore guard John Gilchrist was instrumental in pulling off the shocking run for Gary Williams.
But as Williams long maintained, the ACC’s four teams from the Tar Heel State (Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest) have usually had an advantage since 49 of the 60 tournaments have been played in Greensboro, Raleigh or Charlotte. Six of the tournaments have been played in Atlanta: four in the Washington area at the since-demolished Capital Centre or at Verizon Center; and one in Tampa.
The Terps have only won those three ACC titles, but they reached six other tournament finals: 1972-74 with Driesell’s superb teams led by smooth-shooting Tom McMillen and fierce rebounder Len Elmore; 1980-1981 behind the similar combination of Albert King and Buck Williams; and 2000 when sophomores Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter gave a preview of what was to come with Maryland’s first Final Four appearance in 2001 and its only national championship in 2002.
Last week, I chronicled the heartbreaking 103-100 overtime loss by the 1974 Terps to undefeated and eventual national champion N.C. State, the second straight year they fell in Greensboro to David Thompson and the Wolfpack after losing in 1972 to Dean Smith’s Final Four-bound Tar Heels.
The defeats in 1980 and 1981 were just as agonizing. Duke prevailed 73-72 in 1980 as King’s final shot rolled around the rim but didn’t fall as Williams was undercut by the Blue Devils’ Kenny Dennard, a foul that the officials missed. Carolina edged Maryland 61-60 the next year en route to the national title game.
The edge was taken off the loss to Duke in 2000 because the Terps were so young with three juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen in their seven-man rotation – and the promise of what would could happen in the near-future.
Millikan’s title stands out as the only break in the stranglehold that the Tobacco Road schools had on the ACC Tournament title from 1954-70, but that was before college hoops had much of a national presence. And after thumping Boston College in their NCAA first-round game, the sixth-ranked Terps came up short against fifth-ranked Temple with an ill Bunge clearly not himself.
It was more memorable when Driesell, who had played at Duke, finally triumphed in his 15th ACC Tournament at Maryland.
“Back when I first started out I wanted to win that thing real bad,” Driesell drawled. “I said, ‘If win that thing, I’m going to have my car in here and I’m going to screw it on the hood and ride all around the state of North Carolina for a week. … Now I’m too old for that. I’ve got to get home and get some sleep.”
Maryland pounded West Virginia in its NCAA opener before being edged in the next round by Illinois.
Two decades later, the Terps headed to Greensboro with a 7-9 conference record. But they had won three of their last four. Still, no one foresaw Maryland edging third-seeded Wake Forest 97-86 on a Gilchrist free throw and then rallying from 19 points down to beat second-seeded N.C. State behind his career-high 30 points. That set up a showdown with top-seeded Duke, which was aiming for a record sixth straight ACC Tournament title.
Gilchrist’s three-point play with 20 seconds remaining in regulation capped a 15-3 Terps run and forced overtime in which Maryland prevailed 95-87.
“I just know what you have to do to win these kind of games,” explained the tournament MVP who would never reach that zenith again and didn’t make the NBA after leaving College Park a year early.
The victory meant a lot to Williams, whose Final Four teams hadn’t even advanced to the ACC championship game.
“This kind of makes up for a lot of things that [have] happened to us in the ACC tournament,” said the only man to play and coach for Maryland during its 61 seasons in the conference.
A decade later, Turgeon’s 17-14 Terps were just 9-9 in the conference. If they beat Florida State today, they next meet top-seeded Virginia, the team they shocked four days ago thanks to Seth Allen’s heroics in overtime.
Hmm. A Maryland team that finished strong in the ACC and is led by a sophomore guard. Seems I’ve seen this script somewhere. A repeat of that 2004 title would be a heck of a way for the Terps to bid farewell to the ACC, wouldn’t it?
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.