Twenty-five years later John Lucas still has nightmares about the turnover. "There's Lenny Elmore," says Lucas in his distinctive rasp, as if he's looking at a videotape playing in his mind. "He's open! I'm so tired. But I know he's open. And I throw it over his head. Oh, man!" The errant pass by Lucas, the erstwhile Maryland point guard who's now a Denver Nuggets assistant coach, came in the waning moments of overtime in the Terrapins' 1974 ACC tournament final against North Carolina State. "You know," he says laughing ruefully, "I remember it like it was yesterday."
Like it was yesterday. How many people who were either involved in or witnessed that classic game remember it like it was yesterday? How many consider it the best game they ever appeared in or saw? Lucas, who played 14 seasons in the NBA and has coached for four more, thinks it is. Norm Sloan does too, even though two weeks after that game he coached N.C. State to its first national crown. Tom Burleson and Monte Towe do. They were, respectively, the Wolfpack's center and point guard, the biggest man (7'4") and the smallest (5'5") in major college basketball that season. Their teammate David Thompson does, too, and all he did four years later as a Nugget was score 73 points, the third-highest single-game total in NBA history.
Few games resonate like that March 9, 1974, matchup at Greensboro Coliseum. "Well, you're only about the thousandth person to ask me about it," drawled Lefty Driesell, who coached Maryland that season and, at 67, is still stomping along the sidelines, at Georgia State. "I guess nobody will ever forget the dang thing."
There are many reasons to toast the dang thing's silver anniversary at this week's ACC tournament in Charlotte. First, there were the stakes. Listen up, all you 16-12 teams waving your RPI rating and crowing about your invite to the Big Dance: No. 1-ranked North Carolina State came into that 1974 game 25-1 and No. 4 Maryland was 23-4, but only the winner would get a bid to the NCAAs. There had been a drumbeat of support for expanding the tournament field to deserving teams other than conference champions, but a proposal to do that had been "temporarily rejected" by the NCAA before the 1973-74 season.
Second, the game had a Sisyphean aspect to it for the Terps. Five times over two seasons they had taken the court against the Wolfpack with perhaps their strongest team ever. Both sides had unforgettable players. N.C. State with the high-flying Thompson, the Ichabod Crane-like Burleson, the gnomish Towe; Maryland with the peppery southpaw quarterback Lucas; the stern and studious Elmore, all New York City nastiness in Afro and muttonchop sideburns; and Tom McMillen, the future congressman who had a center's height (6'11") and a guard's sweet stroke from the outside. These guys could play a little, too; seven of the 10 starters, the aforementioned sextet plus Lucas's backcourt mate, Mo Howard, went on to the NBA.
There was personality and pizzazz on the sidelines. For that ACC final Sloan wore a ghastly plaid sport coat and yellow slacks that might've turned up in Boogie Nights. Both he and Driesell were characters: candid and intense. They were friends united in their antipathy toward North Carolina coach Dean Smith. They were united, too, in hearing the criticism that all they did was recruit superior talent and roll out the balls at practice.
The final—and best—reason to celebrate this Maryland-N.C. State showdown is the quality of the game. The play was furious but never sloppy, even though it was the Terps' third game in as many nights. (N.C. State, which had a first-round bye, needed to win only one game to make the final.) Though the Wolfpack had the nation's top offensive performer in Thompson, as well as a human lighthouse in Burleson, it rarely slowed the tempo to set up those two players, rarely turned the game into the plodding post-this-guy-up or isolate-that-one waltz that occurs so much these days. The result? Forty-five minutes that flowed, an up-and-down classic in which both teams scored in triple figures (without a shot clock) and in which no more than five points separated the protagonists during the final 20 minutes. Recently SI brought together Burleson, Elmore and Thompson in a Raleigh hotel room and replayed the videotape. Their recollections and the magic of the game made for a memorable session.
It would've been almost impossible for Maryland to have played a better first half than it did that night. There was much talk by the color commentator working his first ACC tournament, a former Wake Forest point guard named Billy Packer, that the Terrapins would be fatigued because of their 105-85 rout of North Carolina in the semifinals the night before. ("That's the tape we should be looking at," said Elmore jokingly.) But Maryland forced the action through the first 20 minutes and led 55-50 at intermission. McMillen had 16 points; Elmore was a force under the boards with 13 rebounds; and Lucas, a sophomore, was the best player on the floor in that half, dribbling around and through the Wolfpack defense as his tight Afro—"I was a legit 6'4" then," says the 6'1" Lucas—barely moved.
But N.C. State came out fired up for the second half. When Towe forced a jump ball on Lucas and then converted a putback on the ensuing fast break, the Wolfpack took its first lead, 58-57, with 18:20 to go. "I remember the first time I saw Monte. I thought he was the kid brother of one of the players," says Thompson. "I'm thinking, This is our point guard? But Monte was the heart and soul of our team."
At 16:46 the Wolfpack went ahead 64-61 when the 6'9" Elmore was whistled for goaltending on a hook shot by Burleson, the second such call in the game. The refs, Hank Nichols (now supervisor of officials for the NCAA) and Jim Hernjak, apparently were of the opinion that any hook shot by Burleson that was blocked had to be goal-tending because no one could reach the ball before it started its downward flight. Twenty-five years later those calls still sting Elmore. "We always felt we were the outsiders on Tobacco Road," he says, "that we were never quite accepted in what was essentially a Carolina league." Sitting on the couch next to him, Burleson whistled softly. "Do you know what this is, Lenny?" he asked, moving his hands back and forth. "It's the world's smallest violin."