The Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament came to another unexpected end last week at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md. The University of Virginia won the championship by overcoming a legacy of failure, an arena full of disbelievers and three of the nation's Top 20 teams. Reaching the finals for the first time, the sixth-seeded Cavaliers became the ninth upset winner in the tournament's 23-year history and the first to emerge from the recesses of the league's second division. And in winning they proved that not only can you take the ACC tournament out of North Carolina, but you can also take North Carolina out of the ACC tournament.
Virginia played with a poise, a discipline and a perfection that belied its 4-8 conference record. The Cavaliers' deliberate style slowed three high-powered teams to low-scoring crawls. They cut down North Carolina State on Thursday 75-63, Maryland on Friday 73-65 and North Carolina on Saturday 67-62. Then they cut down the nets.
Virginia's handsome young coach, Terry Holland, who came to Charlottesville last year after five good seasons at Davidson, did not consider the outcome an upset, however. "The last month of the season there was not a team in the conference that played better than we did," he said. "I said we could win, but nobody believed me. We just had to play our type of game for 40 minutes a night without losing control. And fortunately, because we were playing every night, we didn't have time to dwell on each victory. We walked a fine line between being conscious of what was going on and choking."
The players were not quite so confident. Some had already made motel reservations for a week's stay in Fort Lauderdale. "We'll cancel gladly," said senior Forward Wally Walker, the tournament's Most Valuable Player. Wally Wonder, as he does not like to be called, scored 21 points in the championship game and 73 overall. A year ago he was spending a lot of time on the bench because he could not adjust to Holland's disciplined attack. Holland admits he may also have expected too much of Walker following his third knee operation. This season, fully healed and in tune with the system, Walker developed into a 22.6-point scorer. Miffed that Walker was not included on the All-ACC first team, Holland said on Thursday, "The only thing to do now is to win the tournament and make Wally the MVP."
March 15, 1976
If there were any doubts about the soundness of Holland's predictions, they were dispelled in the championship game. North Carolina State had been struggling lately and Maryland's tournament failures under Lefty Driesell—who was Holland's coach at Davidson—have almost come to be expected. But North Carolina was a stern test for anyone and, like the Terrapins and the Wolfpack, the Tar Heels had already beaten Virginia twice.
Fourth-ranked Carolina had won the regular-season title by four games and had finished with a 24-2 record, the best ever under Dean Smith. The Tar Heels were also the defending tournament champions, and they had a first-round bye that strengthened their chances even more. "We seem to have just the right player for every position, and they complement each other extremely well," said Smith on Thursday. "And right now we're playing our best ball of the season."
That seemed to be the case when the Tar Heels breezed past Clemson on Friday night 82-74. Breaking fast, shooting well and penetrating nicely, they looked to be in top form. Tiger Coach Bill Foster, an aw-shucks country boy, said, "That's the best starting five Smith has ever had." And Wolfpack Coach Norm Sloan observed that, "Carolina could beat Indiana."
Holland was not as impressed, however. "It's a good team, not a great team," he said. "If someone can slow them down and get them in foul trouble, they can be beaten."
Two nights later that is exactly what happened. After 15 minutes of aggressive man-to-man defense and a deliberate offense that repeatedly pounded the ball inside, the Cavaliers were behind by only two points, 28-26. And when North Carolina Center Mitch Kupchak went to the bench with his third foul a few seconds later, they were able to take the lead.
Without Kupchak, the 6'10" ACC Player of the Year, the Tar Heel middle was easy pickings. Cavalier Center Otis Fulton made it 28-28 by following a missed shot, Walker put Virginia ahead with two free throws and Fulton then expanded the lead with a five-foot jumper.
Following two Carolina free throws, the Cavaliers picked up three more points in unusual fashion just before the half. With only two seconds remaining, the Tar Heels' Bruce Buckley committed a technical foul before the clock even started by reaching over the baseline on Virginia's inbounds play. Walker sank his seventh free throw of the half and Virginia was given the ball at midcourt. Fulton took a long inbounds pass underneath the basket and laid it in over Buckley as the buzzer sounded. The Cavaliers, who were scoring fewer than two points a minute, suddenly had three in two seconds and a 35-30 halftime lead.
The Tar Heels came back strong early in the second period, taking the lead and holding it until the 10-minute mark. Guard Phil Ford hit four consecutive jump shots and tried to speed up the tempo with aggressive play, but the Cavaliers maintained their same slow and easy pace. As long as the score was close, Virginia was in no particular hurry, and it showed every time Guard Billy Langloh dribbled down court. Finally, with 4:10 remaining and the score tied for the fifth time in the half at 60 apiece, North Carolina went to its four-corners "attack."
Smith puts great stock in the four corners, calling it a delay offense, even if everyone else considers it a stall. Ideally it encourages high-percentage shots and draws fouls. But it can also take away a team's momentum, and does so frequently. In this instance poor execution resulted in a traveling violation, a missed free throw and a missed layup.
But Virginia could not capitalize on these chances until, with 34 seconds remaining, Langloh put the Cavaliers ahead by sinking two free throws. North Carolina lost its chance to tie the score seconds later when Guard John Kuester dragged his foot while trying to decide between a pass and a shot. When Fulton drove for a basket off an inbounds feed from Langloh, the game was Virginia's.
The tournament's unexpected outcome seemed in keeping with its unfamiliar setting. The defeat of the Tar Heels and the elimination of the three other Tobacco Road schools in the first round coincided with the tournament's debut outside of North Carolina. Maryland had lobbied hardest for the change, contending that the four North Carolina schools had won in all but two of the previous years because of the grits-and-gravy flavor of the event. The Terrapins wanted to serve up some home cooking of their own.
The Capital Centre welcomed its guests by scrubbing its walls, washing its windows, distributing brightly colored towels to the players on the bench, hanging banners from the ceiling and putting pennants on the luxurious Sky Suites. What it could not do, however, was duplicate the kind of basketball mania that accompanies the tournament in North Carolina. As a result, ticket scalpers, accustomed to taking in $300 for a $30 book of tickets, were actually losing money—another tournament record.
But capacity crowds of 19,600 did attend every session and every fan knew his school song and favorite locomotive. Most conspicuous were the Clemson supporters, who drew orange tiger paws on their noses. Like all the other camp followers they held out at least minimal hope for the championship because the season had been one of the most competitive in conference history. Not one of the seven teams came in with a losing record, and during one heady week in January four of them were ranked in the Top 10. The league's mark against outside competition, always a point of pride for the ACC, was a phenomenal 80-10, and more than half of the conference games had been decided by five points or fewer.
Holland, however, came to Landover with the heretical idea that the league was not as strong as some people felt. "Neither Maryland nor State is as good as they have been and Carolina has some weaknesses that can be attacked," he said.
Thursday night's first-round results seemed to bear out much of what Holland believed, Maryland had to struggle to beat last-place Duke 80-78 in overtime, the Cavaliers handed stumbling State its fourth straight loss and Clemson put Wake Forest—and everyone else—to sleep with a 76-63 victory.
The Terrapins were lucky to win. Duke ran out to a 27-18 lead in the first half when Tate Armstrong canned his first eight shots. The game went into overtime when the Blue Devils missed three straight 1-and-1 free throws in the last 13 seconds. Reprieved, Maryland won on Lawrence Boston's rebound basket off a missed shot with three seconds left.
The first-night crowd was still buzzing over the Terrapins' narrow escape when Virginia decked N.C. State with an early knockout punch, the Cavaliers sizzling to a 22-point lead in the first half. Although the Wolfpack closed to six with 7:43 left in the second half, State never got closer, and when Kenny Carr, the league's leading scorer with a 27-point average, fouled out three minutes later, Virginia had carved its first notch.
"I don't consider this an upset," Holland said in what was to become a recurring statement. For a different reason, neither did Sloan. "Carr carried us a long way this year," he said. "We over-achieved earlier in the season and got some recognition we probably didn't deserve. We even started dreaming dreams ourselves, but we shouldn't have."
By defeating Wake Forest in the third game Clemson posted a school-record 18th victory. But the Tigers offered little resistance to North Carolina, which shot 56%, placed all five starters in double figures and had the temerity to retreat into the four corners with 8:51 remaining and a 15-point lead. "Sometimes Coach Smith surprises me when he tells us to go to the four corners," said Walter Davis. "I'll think we're playing pretty well and wonder why he did it."
Since most of the pre-tournament speculation had centered on a North Carolina-Maryland final, the other semifinal between the Terrapins and the Cavaliers was supposed to be a mere formality. "If the game is a footrace, we'll lose," Holland said. Driesell tried to make it just that by playing his three-guard alignment of John Lucas, Brad Davis and Mo Howard, but Maryland was never able to get off the mark. Virginia led 37-31 at the half and fell behind only briefly in the second period. Lucas and Steve Sheppard shot poorly and the Terrapins committed 28 fouls, Lucas going out at 4:56 and Howard at 2:17. Cavalier Reserve Guard Robert Stokes clinched the victory by making two steals and sinking five straight free throws late in the game.
By this time people were finally beginning to get the message. "We were beaten very, very soundly," said Driesell. "The players stunk and I stunk. I must be the stupidest man alive to keep playing those three guards together, but I'll never do it again."
Realizing that Maryland could still receive the conference's NCAA at-large bid if the Tar Heels beat Virginia in the finals, Lefty said, "I'll be rooting like hell for North Carolina...for the first time in my life."
But Lefty couldn't even root good enough. So now Virginia has the ACC champion's berth in the East Regional of the NCAA playoffs, North Carolina gets an at-large spot in the Mideast, and Maryland—well, there are all those empty motel rooms in Fort Lauderdale.