There is nothing like that down-home, country-cooked Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. It is unusual, unfair and unreal, a bit of bad and good, invented by the same perverse guy who makes your buttonholes too small and your shoestrings too weak. At its mention, jittery coaches shake, rattle and roll while fat-cat alumni doff their skimmers and toot air horns. It is simple college fun, like stuffing Volkswagens, streaking around the history building or electing a gnu campus queen.
But above all the tournament presents the kind of basketball that tickles the palate of a box-score gourmet. Last week the ACC staged its annual spring feast in Greensboro, N.C., taxing the city's ice-making machines and providing a venue for every backwoods huckster with something to sell and a story to tell. While frivolous fans raced up and down motel hallways in search of their lost youth, Greensboro Coliseum began to look like a discount store. On sale were everything from beanbag chairs to barbecued chicken, blankets to megaphones, bumper stickers to buttons, all guaranteed to have been touched once by a player on your favorite team.
Out of this hysteria emerged North Carolina State, which won the title and an NCAA berth last Saturday night by beating Maryland 103-100 in overtime, making it the third straight year the Terrapins have been runner-up. The game was indescribably delicious. N.C. State shot 55% from the floor while Maryland hit 61% and the teams played with the fury of neighbors who feel that just because they live on the same block, they don't have to be polite.
At 5'5½" Monte Towe is short enough to duck under a turnstile, but with six seconds left he was the little big man, making two free throws to give State an invincible three-point edge. It was the 26th victory for the No. 1-ranked Wolfpack, which has lost only once in 54 games in two seasons. But this one was not easy, and there were several moments when State was perilously close to watching the NCAA tournament from house seats in Greensboro. Early in the first half Maryland led by 13 points, and though State caught and passed the Terrapins before the intermission, Maryland recovered to lead by five.
The second half was always close. State was ahead 97-93 late in the game but Maryland tied the score with just over a minute to play. When State tried to hold the ball for one last shot, Maryland stole it away and did the same. With nine seconds remaining Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell called time-out to put in a play, but a frenzied Wolfpack defense kept Maryland from getting off a reasonable shot. The Terrapins had other chances in the overtime period, but when Towe calmly dropped both free throws, the game was over.
The victory climaxed a personal vendetta for Tommy Burleson, the occasionally maligned, frequently gawky 7'4" North Carolina State center who is so thin that he wears a wrist band up near his elbow. Burleson was snubbed this year by all-conference team selectors. They must have felt like eating their ballots after Tall Tommy scored 38 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked a handful of shots.
Three ACC teams—North Carolina State, Maryland and North Carolina—were ranked in the Top Ten. And just thinking about that was enough to make their fans sing a school song. Maryland was led onto the court for each game by a zealot wildly waving the state flag. A Carolina fan held up a picture of a skunk whenever a referee's call offended him. And Governor James Holshouser Jr. alternated wearing a blue blazer at North Carolina games and a red one for N.C. State appearances. The Wolfpack had by far the easiest route to the finals because of its first-round bye, a reward for winning the conference regular-season title. The team needed only a good half against Virginia to get there while Maryland had the unenviable task of beating three state teams, Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State, in Greensboro, on three straight days, with everybody from the dogcatcher to the governor rooting against the Terrapins.
State Coach Norm Sloan and Maryland's Driesell tried different tacks for the big game. Driesell and his assistant, Dave Pritchett, looked like men on their way to collapse. Lefty's motel room wall was papered with diagrams, statistics and memos, and on Friday night he stayed up until 5 a.m. looking at films of North Carolina State. "I don't think they have had three hours sleep this week," said Forward Tom McMillen. "You don't get tired when you're playing for a national championship," said Driesell.
Sloan, meanwhile, had the demeanor of a hen sitting on a golden egg, spending all day Saturday sleeping. But after beating Maryland, he candidly admitted a couple of mistakes that almost cost the victory. "I don't even know what happened late in the game," he muttered. It was Driesell who came up with the nifty strategy. He moved 6'2" Mo Howard onto State's 6'4" superstar, David Thompson, brought little Billy Hahn off the bench, and used a three-guard attack. Thompson did not score in overtime, but unfortunately for Maryland, Burleson and Towe did. Later, the partisan crowd booed Driesell when he started to take his team off' the floor before the presentation ceremony. Driesell was piqued at having to watch North Carolina State cut down the nets. He said he had seen the act before.