The Greatest College Basketball Game Ever Played
NC State Vs. Maryland 1974
Back to Home Page
Coach Everett N. Case
This story is taken from a John Feinstein article written in 1984 about the NC State versus Maryland ACC Tournament Final game in 1974. Many people consider it to be the greatest college basketball game ever played. They dragged themselves onto the bus, drained emotionally, so exhausted they wondered how they could play again in five days. Coach Norm Sloan cried on his wife's shoulder. Center Tommy Burleson, who had been the hero of the game, was so tired he remembers "feeling like a dishrag that's been all wrung out. I had nothing left." They sat there, joyous over their victory, yet too tired even to speak to one another. Suddenly, a figure appeared at the front door of the bus, climbing the steps slowly because he, too, had little energy left. "Men, I just wanted to tell you I thought 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."
That speaker was Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell. His team had just lost the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament final in overtime, 103-100, to Sloan's North Carolina State Wolfpack team, which eventually did win the National Championship. "I don't usually go for that going into the other locker room stuff because I think it's phony," Driesell said recently. "But that night, I did it because I really felt that way. I was disappointed we lost, but I wasn't upset. My team played its heart out."
Two of the best college basketball teams you will ever see played their hearts out that night, March 9, 1974. Perhaps one statistic sums up the quality of game it was. In 40 minutes of up tempo basketball, there was not one turnover, not one. The only turnovers of the game came in overtime and turned out to be critical. There was such offensive excellence, the losing team shot 62 percent. It has been called by many basketball experts and historians the best college game ever played. "Usually, I only remember details after losses," said Sloan. "But not this game. I could take you through the whole game if you wanted me to. It's that vivid in my memory. It was that good."
State's players remember the game in more detail, although players on both teams agree it was the best game they ever played in. But the Maryland people admit feeling some frustration, even today, because they had played three games in the tournament. State played twice because it had a bye as the first seed. Ironically, 1974 was the last year that the NCAA restricted its tournament to conference champions and independents. That meant that even though State and Maryland entered the game ranked No.1 and No. 5 in the country, respectively, only one would have a chance to play for the national title. Each had incentive.
Maryland, led by Tom McMillen and Len Elmore, had won 73 games in three seasons. The Terrapins had won the National Invitation Tournament in 1972 and had gone to the NCAA East Region Final in 1973. But the Terrapins had lost five straight games over two seasons to N.C. State, and had gotten their NCAA bid the previous year only because the Wolfpack was on probation. For two of the greatest players in Maryland basketball history, this was the final chance.
NC State had its own incentive. The Wolfpack had lost only one game in two years, to UCLA early in the 1973-74 season. In 1973, after going 27-0, the Pack had gone home because of the probation. Now, it was 26-1. "We had lost one game in two seasons, we had won 32 straight ACC games in a row and yet one loss would mean we would never play in an NCAA tournament game," said point guard Monte Towe. "That's pressure."
So, two teams with everything to gain and everything to lose took the court in Greensboro Coliseum. The previous night, in the semifinals, Maryland had humiliated North Carolina by 20 points, one of the worst ACC Tournament losses ever suffered by a Dean Smith-coached team. "We knew how well they were playing," Towe said. "We knew we would have to raise our level of play higher than we had all year to beat them. After 10 minutes, we knew even *that* wouldn't be good enough.
The Terrapins started quickly, leading by 12 points before the Wolfpack players knew what hit them. David Thompson, who would make only 10 of 24 shots from the field--still managing 29 points--was not his usual dominant self. The Terrapins were pushing the ball up court at every chance and their ball handling was flawless.
"I thought we were in serious trouble," Sloan said. "But what set our team apart was its ability, somehow, someway to always find a way to win. Maryland was as good a basketball team as you'll ever find that night. After that game, Lefty had to be banging his head, saying, 'What do I have to do'?"
Trailing by five at halftime, State came back. This was to be Burleson's night of vindication. Even though he had been a star from the beginning at State, the 7-4 Burleson had always been in Thompson's shadow. With Maryland unable to sag on Burleson because of the outside shooting of Thompson and Towe, he found himself one on one with Elmore, who is 6-9. Again and again, he spun into the lane for his hook shot, and it would drop. Each time it seemed like the Terrapins had the Wolfpack in trouble, Burleson would sink another hook.
State finally got even with five minutes left in the game. Back and forth they went, each team showing the superb athletic skills that its players possessed. The Greensboro Coliseum crowd was caught up in the intensity of the contest, cheering every basket made. Finally, Maryland had the last shot in regulation. The ball swung to guard Mo Howard in the corner and he appeared to have an open shot from 10 feet. But Burleson flashed out from underneath to deflect the shot away. The Terrapins had a final chance, a frantic, desperate shot by John Lucas. No good.
Overtime. Again, Maryland led. But by now, the Terrapins were exhausted. Howard and Elmore had played every minute; Lucas and McMillen all but two. Lucas had banged his knee and it was swelling. With 2:16 left and the Terrapins leading, 100-99, Lucas missed the front end of a one and one. State's Towe dribbled down the court, worked the ball patiently and, finally, found Phil Spence underneath the basket for a lay in. The score was 101-100. Again, Maryland had a chance for the final shot as Lucas walked the ball toward the Maryland basket. But Lucas, exhausted, threw his entry pass past Elmore with 23 seconds to go. The Terrapins were forced to foul and Monte Towe made both foul shots to seal the victory.
The Maryland players cried. They had given everything they had for 45 minutes and came up empty. "I told 'em not to cry, they should be proud," Driesell said. The Greensboro Coliseum fans gave both teams a standing ovation as they left the court. "We played UCLA two overtimes in the national semifinals, but the Maryland game was tougher," Sloan said. "It was as draining and exhilarating an experience as I've ever had. I still remember turning around on the bench at one point and just saying out loud, "My goodness, this is a hell of a game."