Part of Towe's appeal is his size and part is his nerve, or perhaps lack of brains. Last week he was playing with a broken nose and wearing a face mask for protection, leading opposition players to ask: "Who was that masked man?" In addition, his left wrist was sheathed in a plastic splint to protect another broken bone and he was troubled by a pinched nerve in a leg. "He's got character leapin' out of him," Sloan says of his midget basket case. "He really takes his lumps. But I'll tell you, when he talks out there everybody listens."
On the floor, sophomore Towe is an improbable but forceful leader. He scampers about pointing out his teammates' mistakes and encouraging them to apologize through redeeming action. He controls the ball, parceling it out to open players or firing in a jump shot from outside if he can see the rim through the forest. Yet for all of his talent, Towe is not the player Thompson is, as indeed how many others in college ball are? Thompson is an extraordinary outside shooter with facile moves going to the basket, but his most spectacular attribute is his jumping. "Sometimes I go up to block a shot and I feel like the ball is just a little out of my reach," he says. "It seems like I can feel my arm growing. It's coming right out of my shoulder. And all of a sudden I can stretch and reach the ball."
But if Norm Sloan was well fixed, Preacher Man was hardly arriving at the prayer meeting unattended. Besides Olympian McMillen, he had Len Elmore, Bob Bodell and Jim O'Brien, nicknamed "Mo," "Bo" and "O," as well as John Lucas, a freshman guard familiar with the nets—he also is a fine tennis player. " Elmore is the heart and soul of their team," said Sloan. "He blocks shots. He shoots. They play a zone press and I don't think they even care if you beat it because if you do Elmore's back there waiting."
"We complement each other excellently," says McMillen, a junior pre-med major with a 3.8 grade average. He shares double-post duties with Elmore, also a junior. " Elmore's two greatest skills are his shot blocking and his rebounding. Shooting is my strength. By the time we're seniors, it'll be amazing."
Unfortunately for Lefty, they are still juniors, and only the game was amazing, as N.C. State and Thompson stole it all 87-85. Consider the ending first.
With the score tied 85-85 and 1:45 remaining, McMillen fired a wild hook shot. State got the rebound and ran down the clock until only 12 seconds remained. Sloan then made a surprise move, deciding not to run a set play. He hoped unplanned movement would produce an opening. What happened was that Burleson wound up 25 feet from the basket with time fleeting and frantically launched a shot that rattled in and out of the basket. Thompson picked up the ball and later the commentary: "I had faked and broken to the inside and was open, but Burleson didn't see me and took the shot. I had position on the boards and I just went up. The ball was there." There, and a second later Thompson had it safely in the basket.
"Isn't he beautiful?" said Towe. Well, not to Preacher Man, who submitted to a half-minute postgame interview and then took refuge behind his bolted locker-room door for half an hour before coming forth to pronounce it all "part of life."
It was Driesell's game plan, as much as "life," that undid him, however. He played the entire first half using a zone press, but State solved that easily and got the ball upcourt to free men, usually Thompson, who wound up with 37 points. The zone press had carried Maryland this season and Lefty was loath to shelve it until halftime—at which point he trailed 53-44. Then, after his team fought back and took the lead 85-83 with four minutes remaining, Driesell ordered a stall that inhibited Maryland's surge as effectively as any State defense could have. Driesell's strategy did get the normally reliable McMillen to the free-throw line twice in bonus situations but he missed and that, too, is life. It is also why N.C. Stale is 12-0 and Maryland is 10-1.