To recall what team North Carolina State beat in the finals to win its first NCAA basketball championship, it may soon be necessary to dig into the appropriate record book. The answer: Marquette, and by the score of 76-64, in Greensboro on the night of March 25, 1974. Big deal. What will surely be more memorable—unforgettable in the South—is the semifinal, played two days earlier, for it was then that the Wolfpack truly won the title, beating UCLA 80-77 in double overtime, the first time in eight years the Bruins had not continued on to win the championship.
Nor will the Wolfpack heroes soon be forgotten, from the gangling Tom Burleson, who held UCLA's Bill Walton to a draw and denied Marquette shooters access to their basket all night, to that gnat of a guard, Monte Towe with his adept ball control and sharp passes. But above all there was David Thompson, literally, constantly, above all, 6'4" in the N.C. State guidebook but 8'4" off the backboards. When everything else is forgotten, Thompson will still be up there, magically floating in to take a pass, and dropping it through for two. One of these days someone ought to tell him that it is all over. The UCLA whammy is dead. The Marquette defense has been broken. The NCAA championship is his, and Towe's, and Burleson's and the others'. And that on the way down, please, he should not fall on his head.
That is what had concerned State most before the weekend began, that and what to do about Walton, of course. Wearing 15 stitches as a result of his spectacular high dive in the regional finals the week before, Thompson might have been expected to be less than his usual reckless self. State need not have worried.
The championship game was virtually decided late in the first half with a play on which, ironically, Marquette took the lead. When Marcus Washington was whistled for charging into Thompson after his driving score put the Warriors ahead 28-27, Coach Al McGuire screeched loudly—too loudly—and was hit with a technical foul. Thompson drilled home three free throws and Burleson twisted for a layup to make the score 32-28 State. Less than a minute later, after Burleson had scored again, the Warriors' Bo Ellis was called for goal-tending another Wolfpack basket and McGuire was up and on the court again.
Zap, another T ("The technicals sure gave us a lift," Thompson was to say later) and Marquette went to the locker room down 39-30.
The game really got out of Marquette's reach five minutes into the second half when State built a 19-point lead. From then on State Coach Norman Sloan turned a rout into something of a sick joke by ordering the most explosive college basketball team in many years into his beloved "tease delay."
This is a tactic long favored by the Carolina coaching fraternity, although to an outsider its only recommendation is the tendency to turn a one-sided game back into a contest. Sloan almost succeeded in accomplishing that as Marquette cut the deficit to nine points with 10 minutes remaining. But while the Marquette players were staring up toward the rafters, wondering if Thompson was going to attack again, Towe and Moe Rivers slipped beneath their gaze to keep the Warriors from getting any closer.
If staging the NCAA finals for the first time in the heart of the South seemed the obvious plot for an ambush of royalty, it must be remembered that Greensboro was selected four long years ago, before Walton or Burleson had joined their varsities and before Thompson had a firsthand understanding of what a "cerebral concussion" was. In their separate ways both Sloan and John Wooden tossed off any cosmic meanings (or sinister motives) attached to the site. "We've had the finals in Los Angeles, too, you know," said the Wizard of Westwood.
N.C. State's boss was heard to remark, "We're just visitors" and complain that the area press "looks at basketball through pale blue eyes"—a snappy slap at State's sister institution, North Carolina, which has pale blue for a school color and which was the host university for the tournament.
Of the many local screamers, in fact, many had to be Tar Heel supporters, among whom feelings were divided. "I've never rooted for UCLA," said one of these nice people, "but I hope State gets beat by a thousand."
The magnitude of the UCLA-North Carolina State rematch did not go undetected by Marquette's McGuire or Ted Owens of Kansas, the antagonists in the other semifinal. At a small party on Friday evening attended by all the competing coaches except Sloan, who was off somewhere undoubtedly selecting his wardrobe, McGuire said he was just glad to play in the "B class division" while Owens expressed pleasure at coaching in the "preliminary."
Their game, sadly, lived down to these expectations. Though any contest featuring Marquette's annual cast of street fighters against a midlands crew with a Cook, a Knight and a guy named Morningstar who insists he is not an Indian, could not lack for color, the Warriors' 64-51 victory produced few dramatics.
Kansas struggled to a one-point lead at the half, but after McGuire chewed out his troops (the coach and little Lloyd Walton had a shouting match in the locker room), after Washington bombed over the enemy zone and after Maurice Lucas took the boards, and with them the game, into his own hands, the Jayhawks fell apart and succumbed to Marquette's sticks-'n'-stones defense. As Ellis was shutting off KU's Norman Cook, Earl Tatum took care of Roger Morningstar, and only reserve Rick Suttle played up to par for Kansas.
The second semifinal, by contrast, was even better than it looked, which is to say it was a game for the ages. Not only did it bring together teams No. 1 and 2 in the land, but its main matchups included four of the finest players in the sport—Burleson vs. Walton, Thompson vs. Keith Wilkes—and there was no hiding the bad blood that remained from their first meeting back in the snows of St. Louis when UCLA blew out N.C. State 84-66.
"A real whippin'," the Bruins' Tommy Curtis called that one, and Wooden kept adding psychological fuel. "I want State to dwell on that 18-point margin," he said.
Sloan, meanwhile, kept his verbal distance. In between sneaking sidelong glances at the patchwork head of Thompson, he expressed skepticism at the "un-Woodenlike" remarks. State Forward Tim Stoddard was more to the point. "We know they aren't 18 points better than us," he said, "but what's more important is that they know it."
On the day the Californians arrived in Greensboro, Walton stepped off the plane with sandals on his feet and a bag of fruit in his hand. As UCLA practiced behind closed doors, the Wolfpack worked out 80 miles away on its home court in Raleigh before a crowd of 6,000. Different strokes for different folks.
Though the Bruins went into their normal weekend isolation act—among other things, UCLA is the Howard Hughes of college sport—Andre McCarter did emerge at one point to discuss the possibility of UCLA's losing. "I won't believe it," he said. "It just doesn't fit into history."
Well, it took another giant to knock off the giant, it took David to beat Goliath, and, finally, it took a dwarf to topple the dynasty, but it happened. Long ago Sloan had told his men they could be one of the great teams of all time, but it is inconceivable that even Burleson, Thompson and the lovable lightning bug, Towe, believed him before Saturday. Before the Wolfpack came back from 11 points behind in the second half, not once but twice, and from seven points behind in the second overtime. Before this threesome combined for 25 baskets and State's final 24 points of the game. Before the raging Burleson battled the magnificent Walton on even terms. Before Thompson showed off his skydiving routine again and again as the crises mounted and—finally—before Towe went to the line with 12 seconds left in the game to make the two clinching free throws.
Then it was done. After 50 minutes of thrills, spills, moon shots, mistakes, courageous comebacks, bungled leads, concentrated fury and one of the most beautiful contests ever played, North Carolina State had beaten the seven-year national champions 80-77. The Wolfpack knew how good it was. And so did UCLA.
It is probably demeaning to both teams to say, as UCLA's Dave Meyers did, "We beat ourselves" or as Towe did, "Nothing can compare to beating Maryland in the ACC finals." For, to answer Towe, this game was more important, and to counter Meyers, both teams had many opportunities to win or lose long before the end.
How State finally succeeded was simple enough. The Wolfpack forced the Bruins to start their offense farther out than they like, and State stopped the backdoor plays as Thompson held his former nemesis, Wilkes, to five baskets in 17 attempts while scoring 28 points himself. Towe buzzed around the UCLA guards until they finally got tired of swatting and started tripping over him, and Burleson prevented Walton from dominating. Though Big Red had the edge in points and rebounds, 29-20 and 18-14, tall Tom actually prevailed on more big plays.
Burleson made a magnificent one early in the second half. At that stage UCLA had rushed to a 49-38 lead and it seemed like school was out when State missed again as Walton controlled a defensive rebound, held it high overhead, and looked upcourt.
Then, from behind his rival, the 7'4" Burleson darted in to pluck the ball out of Walton's hands and quickly lay it in the basket. As Walton ran back on offense he snarled at Burleson, swearing vengeance. And indeed, UCLA went to another big margin, 57-46, with 11 minutes to go. But State was not through this time, either. As Towe cracked the whip, tearing down the lane or firing football-type passes from midcourt, the Pack came back. Scoring 10 straight points, it closed to 57-56, then to 61-60, and, astonishingly, went into the lead at 63-61 when Thompson vanished into the rafters again with still another sky-lob basket and a three-point play.
With 51 seconds remaining and the score tied at 65, Walton missed a hook and Burleson rebounded. But, after a State delay offense, the burly Stoddard missed an open corner shot with five seconds left that would have won the game in regulation. Again, in the first overtime, it was State's game to win after Stoddard stole a pass from Greg Lee, enabling the Wolfpack to hold the ball once more, and Thompson drove for the payoff with 10 seconds to go. Instead of shooting himself, however, he passed off to Burleson, whose short spin toss bounced off the rim.
Wouldn't anybody win this thing? Certainly UCLA seemed on its way in the second overtime, after Walton and Wilkes took the Bruins to a 74-67 lead with 3:27 remaining. But still State would not quit. The Pack pressed tighter, opened up the floor, caused turnovers and got every offensive rebound it needed. Just like that, UCLA's lead was down to one. And after Meyers missed a critical one-and-one with 1:16 on the clock, Thompson leaped one last time, banked a jumper over Wilkes, and the Wolfpack was ahead 76-75. Ahead to stay.
Moments later Lee missed a long one-hander and, underneath, Wilkes was called for pushing Thompson. David made both free throws, widening the lead to 78-75. Still later, with 27 seconds to go, Burleson stole Lee's pass to Walton. Curtis fouled Towe, and the little man made both shots for 80-75.
Now it was over for sure. As Walton loped down the floor, after—fittingly enough—scoring UCLA's last basket, he nodded to his comrade, Lee, as if to say, "It's O.K." And it was. For afterward, even as he sat nude in the dressing room refusing to talk to the press, grinning like a Cheshire cat and gnawing on a banana, in defeat Bill Walton knew who he was.
After dressing he shoved his uniform into a bag and left to sign autographs for some children. He stopped at the Coliseum exit when a man in overalls grabbed his arm. "Mr. Walton," the man said, "I work here, and I just want to shake your hand."
"Thanks," the player said. "And thanks for all you've done for us."
As the redhead walked out of college basketball and into the evening drizzle the game could say the same to him. At the end Bill Walton didn't even need to win. He had already fit into history.