Whatever the justice of those goaltending calls, Burleson had the game of his life, finishing with 38 points. Yet his performance didn't diminish the reputation of Elmore, who was one of the toughest defenders in the college game. Rather, it reflected the tenor of the times, better times for those who don't think basketball should be the hand-to-hand combat it has since become. Burleson got himself into good position in the paint because Elmore was simply not allowed by the refs to body, elbow or outright push him out of it. There were none of the converge-on-the-ball-and-smother-it tactics that bog down games these days.
But even as Burleson began to dominate, Maryland wouldn't fold. Consider these plays that occurred midway through the second half: Lucas stole the ball from Thompson and fed it to a streaking Howard for a layup; Lucas rebounded a short miss by the Wolfpack's Moe Rivers and again found Howard on a long pass for another layup; Lucas took the inbounds pass after a Towe basket and, almost unbelievably, spotted Howard sneaking behind the defense again. Howard's third basket gave the Terrapins a 77-72 lead with 11:40 left. Sure, that kind of defense would send, say, Pat Riley into therapy, but this was an era when teams weren't afraid to run and take quick shots, when they didn't handle the basketball as if it were a family heirloom.
With 5:18 left and Maryland's Owen Brown in his face, Thompson hit a 20-foot jumper to cut the Terps' lead to 89-88. Unlike many of today's supertalented athletes, who spend most of their time in high school and college attempting to fly to the basket, the 6'4" Thompson didn't have to learn how to shoot a jumper when he got to the pros. His outside shot was as deadly as any in the college game, and it kept defenders from playing off him too far. Though he remains a legend in the ACC, Thompson's place in the broader history of college basketball seems lost. Because of NCAA violations that N.C. State committed during his recruitment, Thompson and the rest of the 27-0 Wolfpack of 1972-73 didn't go to the NCAAs. The 1974-75 team (22-6) didn't make it out of the ACC tournament. That gave Thompson only one season in the national spotlight. Then, too, had he been able to use his 45-inch vertical leap for show-stopping jams—he played in the era of the so-called Alcindor Rule that prohibited dunking—the Thompson legend would've grown a hundredfold. After college his drug and alcohol abuse cut short what should have been an immortal NBA career. He played nine years for the Nuggets (the first season in the ABA) and the Seattle SuperSonics, but the 73-point game notwithstanding, he never reached his promise. "I played against Bill Walton, and he was great," says Elmore, "but there were ways to stop him." He points to Thompson. "There was no way to stop this guy."
Yet for the most part Maryland employed only one man, either Brown or backup forward Tom Roy, to guard Thompson. At the same time N.C. State didn't clear out all that often to get the ball to its best player. The absence of such tactics kept the game moving, kept it clean. Thompson would finish with 24 shot attempts (and 29 points), but that wasn't an inordinate number considering that N.C. State took 80 shots, about 20 more than the average attempts a team takes in a game today. (Maryland took 77.)
It wasn't until the 4:25 mark that either team slowed the furious pace. The score was tied at 91 when Sloan ordered Rivers, Thompson and Towe into a game of keep-away, figuring—accurately, according to Elmore—that Maryland would exhaust itself chasing the ball. Towe finally weaved through the defense and fed Burleson for a layup that gave N.C. State a 93-91 lead with 3:39 remaining. McMillen banked in a shot, but the Wolfpack regained the lead, 95-93, when Burleson threw a pass between McMillen's legs to Phil Spence for a layup with 2:58 left. Forty-six seconds later Burleson hit two free throws, and the Wolfpack's lead was four. Burleson is a charming and laid-back fellow from the western Carolina mountains, where he was born, raised and still lives, but he has long chafed at the perception that he was nothing more than one of those stiff, Erector Set giants. This game remains Exhibit A that he was a pivotman with a complete arsenal.
When Roy, an unlikely offensive source, banked in a jumper at 1:43 and, 31 seconds later, McMillen, falling out-of-bounds, found Elmore underneath for a layup, the game was tied at 97. Backup guard Mark Moeller, in the game to give the Wolfpack another ball handler, threw away a pass, and with nine seconds left Maryland had a chance to win. Driesell called timeout and sketched a play on which Lucas was to drive to the hoop and either shoot or kick it out for a jumper on the wing. But Lucas, played tightly by Rivers, failed to penetrate and passed the ball to Howard. Though he been shooting well (10 of 15), Howard passed up a good look from 20 feet out and threw the ball back to Lucas, who had time only for a desperation heave that fell short. Overtime.
Consider what was at stake as the teams took the court for the extra period. Maryland had won 46 games over two seasons and had lost only 11, including the five (by a total of 27 points) to the Wolfpack. Beat N.C. State and, heck, the NCAA tournament might look easy. Lose and let the nightmares about the Wolfpack continue. Over the same two seasons N.C. State had put together a 52-1 record (its lone loss had been 84-66 to UCLA early in the 1973-74 season) and had won 31 consecutive ACC games. But lose to Maryland and go home with no national stage, no national championship, no enduring legacy.
Both teams played cautiously in overtime, but even that added to the majesty of the game. They were like two exhausted heavyweights holding each other up, still toe-to-toe in the center of the ring. Thompson remembers feeling the pressure of each possession wash over him. An Elmore free throw at 3:50 gave Maryland a 98-97 lead, but Burleson countered with a hook. Howard put Maryland ahead 100-99 with two free throws, but with 2:04 left Towe found Spence alone for a layup and N.C. State led again.
By this point Lucas had had it. The relentless up-and-down tempo he had helped create had finally gotten to him. With about 15 seconds to go (play-by-play sheets were not as all-encompassing as they are now and TV broadcasts didn't include a clock graphic), Lucas dribbled to his right, reversed and found himself doubled by Towe, who had left Howard. Towe's intrusion forced Lucas to give up his dribble. On the other side of the court, about 10 feet from the basket, Elmore was open. But Lucas's pass sailed far over Elmore's head. That's the play that haunts Lucas.
At the other end Towe was fouled with six seconds remaining. As was his custom, he took the ball from the official and shot it almost instantly. The first free throw swished, and the second took a soft bounce on the front rim, another against the back-board and fell through. N.C. State led 103-100, and Maryland could summon only a desperation shot from backup guard Billy Hahn, who's now a Terrapins assistant. It wouldn't have mattered anyway—there was no three-point shot then.