A look back at the greatest game ever

Six starters from the 1974 ACC Tournament final returned to Greensboro 49 years later

NC State coach Norm Sloan takes the net from the rim after his team defeated Marquette for the NCAA Championship in Greensboro on March 25, 1974. Sixteen days earlier, the Wolfpack beat rival Maryland in the ACC Tournament title game on the same court in what is considered one of the best games ever played. (AP Photo)

GREENSBORO — Each time the ACC Tournament returns to the Greensboro Coliseum, it brings back memories of the epic contests that have been held there over the years. One game, however, stands alone above the rest, and hours before the 2023 ACC Tournament semifinals tipped off, six men who were on the floor for that game — which many consider the greatest in the history of the sport — returned to the building nearly a half-century later.

The year was 1974, and NC State entered the ACC Championship Game as the No. 1 team in the nation, led by high-flying future NBA star David Thompson, 7-foot-4 center Tom Burleson and fiery point guard Monte Towe. Facing them was the No. 3 team in the nation, Maryland, led by future NBA rebounder Len Elmore, 6-foot-11 center Tom McMillan and shooting guard Mo Howard.

The Terrapins, who had lost five straight to the Wolfpack over the last two seasons, jumped out to a 12-0 lead, only to have NC State storm back. The game was tied at 97 after regulation, and NC State went on to win 103-100 in overtime, moving on to the NCAA Tournament where the Pack would cut down the championship nets on the same floor a few weeks later.

Those six players — three from each team — met on the 49th anniversary of the 1974 final and reminisced on the game to end all games.

Different time

To a man, the players reminisced about how strange the 1974 contest must look to modern audiences.

“It was a different game,” said McMillan. “Today’s teams grew up shooting 3-point shots. We never did because there were no 3-point shots. You have the shot clock today. We never had the shot clock. They can dunk. We weren’t allowed to. Kids start lifting weights when they’re 7 years old. We never lifted much. The game is so different today. Plus, all six players here went through college all four years. You don’t see that. I was much better at 22 than I was at 19.”

The biggest difference, however, might have been the stakes of the game.

“The rules were different,” McMillan said. “If you didn’t win that tournament, you didn’t go on (to the NCAA Tournament). They ended up changing that rule because of this game, for the better, I think.”

“You had No. 1 playing No. 3 and one of us wasn’t going to the NCAA Tournament,” said Elmore. “That didn’t make any sense.”

The history

State was looking for its second straight ACC Tournament title after running through league play unbeaten both years. The Wolfpack weren’t eligible to go to the tournament the year before, however, due to NCAA penalties, ramping the urgency in the 1974 game even higher.

“We knew before the season (they were ineligible in 1973),” said Thompson of the season before. “Our key goal was we wanted to go undefeated. That was the goal Coach put out for us before the season. The key game was up at Maryland. We went there and they were ranked above us and we squeaked out the game at the buzzer to win.”

State beat the Terrapins to win the ACC Tournament as well but watched as the Terrapins represented the league in the NCAA Tournament, losing to Providence in the Elite Eight.

“We watched Maryland and Providence play,” recalled Burleson. “We were sitting there watching on the black and white, and when it ended, we were just looking at each other wondering what to do. It was 3 in the afternoon.”

It was time for their point guard to lead them.

“Monte gets up, grabs a basketball and slams it on the floor,” Burleson said. “He said, ‘I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to the gym and play ball.’ And he walked out. Like little ducklings, we followed him.”

In 1974, the two teams clashed twice in the regular season, with State winning both.

“Our first game against them was one of the first nationally televised games,” said Burleson. “We played Super Bowl Sunday. We’re fighting for an ACC title and they’re going to put us on before the Super Bowl. It was more than a dogfight. We went out against each other, knowing it was on national TV. You think we might have egos? You think we may be alpha males? We’re out here playing with full hearts and passion in front of a national TV audience.”

The showdown

In the title game, Maryland jumped out to an early 12-point lead.

“They usually started fast,” Howard said of State. “That was the one game where we did.”

State battled back, however, led by one of the all-time greats.

“Every game was intense,” Burleson said, “but the one thing that always stood out was we had David Thompson.”

“Putting big guys on him didn’t work,” said Elmore. “He was too quick. Smaller guys? He jumped too high. Finally, in the ACC Tournament, I was going to halfway play him. Wherever he was, I’d go to him, and that allowed Tom (Burleson) to get where he needed to go, and he didn’t miss.”

Howard bragged that Maryland “held Thompson to 29 points” in the game, but Burleson poured in 38.

“Everything we tried didn’t seem to work,” Elmore said. “They had too many options. We couldn’t contain them.”

So NC State moved on to the tournament, while Maryland turned down an NIT bid.

“We’d won the NIT in 1972,” Elmore said. “We didn’t want to go back.”

Despite the disappointment, Maryland coach Lefty Driesell paid a visit to the victorious Wolfpack.

“He came onto our team bus,” said Towe, “and said, ‘Go get those guys in the Eastern regional.’”

The Pack went on to make history, but both teams still live on in ACC and Greensboro history for that one night in 1974.

“The amount of talent we had,” said Thompson. “Six All-Americans, three from Maryland, three from NC State. That’s never going to happen again. And you had the two best teams in the country going head-to-head down to the wire.”