The AtlanticCoast Conference tournament last week was a three-day thriller with enoughsuspense to fill a shelf of Agatha Christies. There was a scoreboard thatplayed defense, a comeback that turned into a miracle and another that ended indisaster. Finally, there was a new address for last year's heroes. NorthCarolina State doesn't live here anymore.
North Carolinaevicted David Thompson and the Wolfpack in a ferocious final game that endedthe best tournament in memory. All the games at Greensboro Coliseum were goodto the last drop and added fresh perk to the ACC's claims as the country's bestand best-balanced conference.
The winning TarHeels needed two overtimes and a cramp in Thompson's style, not to mention alot of good ideas from Ford, to win the tournament. North Carolina firmlybelieves that if Jerry can run Uncle Sam's business, then Phil can direct thefour-corner offense, the semi-stall the Tar Heels like so much they employ iteven in nonstalling situations.
Freshman GuardPhil Ford was the tournament's MVP, and his leadership was the clincher inNorth Carolina's first two tournament victories, overtime affairs against WakeForest and Clemson. Then, in the 70-66 defeat of the defending NCAA championWolfpack, he controlled the action with style and verve.
The championshipgame resulted in a woeful ending to Thompson's spectacular college career. Hehad exhausted himself in North Carolina State's dramatic win over Maryland inthe semifinals the night before, when he had to be helped from the floor withpainful leg cramps. Against North Carolina he played mostly on hope. "It'san empty feeling to go out a loser," he said.
As Thompsonexited, a new crop of stars entered. Freshmen played a major role each night.State's Kenny Carr and Clemson's Skip Wise won games in the final seconds, butneither was as important nor as impressive as Ford. He was the Tar Heels'catalytic-converter, wheeling in the middle of the four corners and making thefree throws when the exasperated opposition fouled him. He made 26 of 30 foulshots, usually with the icy fingers of pressure on the back of his neck, andaveraged 26 points a game.
North Carolina'svictory was also a personal triumph for its innovative coach, Dean Smith. Hisyoung team looked moribund when it finished last in the Big Four tournament twomonths ago. And it seemed to be in the same condition in the opener of lastweek's action, before coming back from eight points behind with 50 seconds leftagainst Wake Forest, getting a little help from a long Deacon pass that nickedthe scoreboard suspended over the floor.
The Tar Heels wonthat game 101-100 and, along with State's 91-85 defeat of Virginia andClemson's 78-76 win over Duke in the other opening-night games set the tone forthe tournament. The widest margin of victory in any game was six points, andthe average margin was three.
Going into thetourney four ACC teams were ranked among the top 15 in the polls, and the otherthree were capable of beating the leaders, as Wake Forest and Duke had shownearlier. So it was no surprise that tournament tickets were such status symbolsthey might have been turned out by Gucci. Each school told tales of beingoffered large sums for seats, usually under the guise of gifts to the athleticdepartment.
On Thursdayticketless fans were patrolling the streets of Greensboro at dawn, holding uptheir fingers in a V signal that meant "I need two." The more inspiredamong them carried signs, including one fellow who resorted to rhyme. "I'mnot a picket, I need a ticket," went the first verse. Another fan played onsympathy, raising an arm wrapped in a sling. But ACC tickets apparently are abetter cure than plaster. When he showed up for the games, the man had no slingand was clapping with two hands.
The Greensboromotels were so fully packed that they were out of everything from hot water togrits. Each school's cheering section staked out a lodge, decorating the lobbywith team colors, emblems, flags and everything but David Thompson picturesthat glowed in the dark. Even the maids' cleaning carts had bumper stickers onthem.
North Carolinarated only a mention in the pretournament figuring. Maryland (22-3) was theregular-season conference champion, N.C. State (20-5) the defending nationalchampion, and Clemson had been playing better than anyone. The only edge UNChad was history. North Carolina and N.C. State have won seven of the eight mostrecent tournaments.
But the Tar Heelsthrew the predictions and their season's record aside once the Wake Forest gamebegan. They forced three quick turnovers, including the Scoreboard'sinterception, and profited from a pair of Deacon misses on the front end ofone-and-one free throws to catch up in regulation time of the opener. GuardBrad Hoffman, the only senior in the starting lineup, made the shot that tiedit with three seconds left. Then Ford and substitute John Kuester buried freethrows and the Deacons in the last seconds of the overtime. "What a way tostart the tournament," said Smith.
The same nightNorth Carolina State also got off to a nervous start. The Wolf-pack, which hadplayed some desultory games during the regular season, appeared to haverecaptured the spark that produced 57 victories in 58 games the previous twoyears. State opened up a 22-point lead against Virginia, then left fingernailscratches on the floor as it held on for a 91-85 win.
One of theWolfpack's problems was that its center was playing for Hawaii. State CoachNorm Sloan thought he had 7-foot Tommy Barker signed, sealed and ready fordelivery when the junior college transfer opted for palms instead of pines andheaded for Waikiki. That forced Sloan to switch Forward Phil Spence into themiddle, and the move muddled Spence's game. "It's a new season now,"Spence said before the tournament started. "I'm trying to be the player Iwas when the season began. I was relaxed then."
Relaxation wasnot on Clemson's schedule. The Tigers had not won an ACC tournament game since1964, and Coach Tates Locke was about as cheerful about that as a rock singeris about going bald. Stories that his team may be penalized by the NCAA forrules infractions also did nothing to sweeten Locke's disposition. Heretaliated by barring reporters from the locker room. "It's Tates, as inhates," said one writer.
The Tigers hadwon 10 of their last 12 games, including a 22-point victory over N.C. State.Freshman Wise was a big reason for those successes, and it was Wise who icedthe opening victory against Duke. He sank two free throws with three secondsleft. Locke said, "We could have had God out there with us tonight and wewould have been scared. We're used to getting up on Friday of the tournamentand leaving Greensboro for home."
Maryland, whichlost in overtime to North Carolina State in last year's finals, earned afirst-round bye this year as reward for winning the regular-season title. TheTerps also were encouraged by the knowledge that next season the tournamentwill be played at Capital Centre in Maryland, a result of the supplications ofLefty Driesell, who believes that holding it in tobacco country is injurious tohis team's health.
Maryland'srematch with N.C. State figured to be the highlight of this year's tournament.The Terps virtually were assured an NCAA bid, but State would have to win thetourney to have a chance to defend its national title. State Guards Monte Toweand Mo Rivers knew that was no easy assignment.
"You beat upon a guy so much and he's going to get revenge," said Rivers. "Teamshave been so fired up for us that it's ridiculous."
"Whateverhappens against Maryland, you're going to see us play very tense and with a lotof emotion, the way we did last year," said Towe. "We'll do the extrathings to win."
Near the end ofthe season rumors popped up that Wolfpack players were at each other's throats."That's not right," protested Towe. "If anything, we're closer thanever because of having gone through tough times." State indeed was inspiredand cohesive against Maryland. Thompson scored 30 points in 27 minutes, andTowe directed the offense and played his usual sniping defense as the Packedged ahead. Then, with about 10 minutes left in the game, Thompson fell to thefloor, his legs knotted with severe cramps. Despite his absence, State built a15-point lead with less than four minutes left.
Suddenly Marylandwoke up. The Terps went into a pressing defense, picked up turnovers as if theywere jelly beans spilling from a sack with a hole in it and also got the ballwhen State squandered four straight bonus free-throw opportunities. With nineseconds to play, Maryland's Mo Howard put in two free throws and Maryland hadan 85-84 lead.
When State camedown for its final shot, Rivers went up for a hurried jumper, spotted Carrunderneath and fed him a pass. Carr put in the layup, was fouled and made thefree throw for an 87-85 victory that sent Maryland home to think about nextyear's tournament.
During the TarHeels' 76-71 victory in the other semifinal game, Ford tap-danced his waythrough the Clemson defense and dropped in 15 of 18 free throws. Last year hescored 48 points in one half of a high school game, but friends say that lastsummer, seeking perfection, he practiced 12 to 15 hours a day at his home inRocky Mount, N.C.
The son ofschoolteachers, Ford is a good student. "You can tell him something onceand he picks it right up," says the coach. It also helps that Ford oftengoes over to the Carolina gymnasium late in the evenings to practice some moreby himself.
Even individualsas good as Ford tend to get submerged in Smith's system. Billy Cunningham,Charlie Scott, Bob McAdoo and Bobby Jones all blossomed after they reached thepros. Smith substitutes freely, running in a complete new team at times, andspreads the scoring around. "The pressure's not on me at all because wehave other guys who can score," says Forward Walter Davis, the team's bestshooter.
Davis is asophomore, another member of Smith's Kiddy Korps, and when he enrolled at NorthCarolina some people predicted he would be another David Thompson. Smithastutely responded by putting Davis on the junior varsity during preseasondrills his freshman year.
Last week he wason Thompson, and State's ailing star made only seven of 21 shots and had justfive rebounds. "He was off," said Davis in sympathy. "If he hadn'tbeen hurting, those shots would have gone in, and then everybody would havesaid I played bad defense."
State'srebounding also was diminished when Spence picked up his third foul early inthe first half. The Wolfpack was left with only young Carr to go against NorthCarolina's big three of 6'9" Mitch Kupchak, 6'10" Tom Lagarde and6'10" Ed Stahl. By halftime the Tar Heels had made 15 of 24 field-goalattempts and led 41-35.
North Carolinaheld the lead for most of the second half before Spence bulled his way for apair of quick baskets to put the Wolfpack within two points with less than fourminutes to play. At that point, State seemed ready to knock the poise right outof UNC's youngsters, but the Pack had not bargained on Ford. Working out of thefour corners, he backed and whirled his way down the free-throw lane, finallygetting open for a layup right over State's big men, who were expecting apass.
Davis says thatFord is the quickest player over 20 yards he has ever seen. After his layup thefreshman demonstrated his speed. Breaking ahead of the defense, he drove towardthe basket and flicked a quick bounce pass to Kupchak for the basket that gaveNorth Carolina a six-point lead and ended State's reign as NCAA champion.
The Wolfpack wentout without its composure, being called for three technical fouls and spendingmuch of the night bickering with the officials. In the last few minutes Statewas confused by UNC's zone defense, first frittering away time and then rushingshots. "We just never got our tempo," said Towe.
Smith said thevictory gave him as much satisfaction as any during his tenure. "Peoplewere writing us off early and calling us the fading Tar Heels," he said."But we were down and out against Clemson and Wake and came back. It's thedestiny of this team to win." It's destiny and a brand-new Ford.