No sooner had Duke done in No. 1-ranked North Carolina in last Saturday's semis of the ACC tournament—finishing off the Tar Heels 77-75 with four late free throws by David Henderson, a sophomore who grew up in a tarpaper shack in Drewry, N.C.—than Maryland turned around on Sunday and beat the Blue Devils 74-62 to win the conference crown. The proceedings last weekend in Greensboro, N.C. sent an emphatic message to the NCAA selection committee: This season, the ACC indisputably has the deepest, best-balanced bunch of teams in the land.
It's also a conference whose tournament hasn't been kind to one Charles (Lefty) Driesell, the Terps' coach of 15 years. In 1983 he became the first coach to lose an ACC tournament game to relative conference-newcomer Georgia Tech. The year before, Maryland was booed at halftime for having scored only 11 points in a first-round outing against North Carolina State. Five times before last week Driesell had reached the ACC finals, and five times he had lost: by one to North Carolina in '81, by one to Duke in '80, by three in overtime to N.C. State in '74 in perhaps the best college game ever played, by two to the Wolfpack in '73 and by nine to the Tar Heels in '72. Oh-for-five, and oh, for a little luck.
Once Maryland had earned its berth in the finals, with a 66-64 defeat of Wake Forest, everyone in Greensboro tried getting Driesell to admit how badly he wanted to win the tournament. In reply, he didn't try using his favorite circumlocution, which is "Oh, I don't know, you know." He just kept denying having any obsession with winning the most venerable of postseason classics, which until 1975 was the only route by which an ACC team could make the NCAAs. "If I was hung up on this, I'd have shot myself 43 years ago," said Driesell after the Terps edged the Deacons. "If we win, it's 'cause God wants us to win. If we lose, it's 'cause He wants us to lose."
But the Lord must carry a clipboard. After forward Herman Veal sank a follow shot to give Maryland a 46-45 lead with 8:13 left in the title game, Driesell went to a zone. So began a six-minute Duke scoring drought, during which the Terps got 12 points. From then on, the result was foregone. "The good Lord told me to get out of that man-to-man," Driesell said afterward. "He said, 'I'll win it for you if you do that.' "
March 19, 1984
Of course, Maryland, 23-7 after Sunday, won it for Lefty. "In the past I'd have hollered and screamed before the game and said, 'Let's cut the nets down,' " Driesell said. "But I knew if I'd get uptight, that would get them uptight. I just said, 'Let's win Number 23.' "
However, his players, aware of what was at stake, huddled among themselves in the locker room before taking on the Blue Devils. All the Terps contributed: Center Ben Coleman, who transferred from Minnesota in 1981 when he couldn't get a promise of playing time there, had nine rebounds to run his total for the tournament to 23; guard Adrian Branch, who missed three games at mid-season after being picked up on a dope-possession charge, scored 12 points, giving him 40 for the three games; and freshman guard Keith (Smooth) Gatlin had 10 assists in the finale to add to his eight in the semis.
For his part Len Bias, a forward from Landover, Md. who has been the Terps' most consistent player, was earning the tournament MVP award. A couple of Maryland assistants had spotted him shooting his elegant jumper at an outdoor hoop on campus when he was a ninth-grader. At the time, he worked as a part-time ice cream vendor in Maryland's Cole Field House. "I really didn't sell much," he says. "It was just a freebie to get into the game." Bias scored a career-high 26 against the Blue Devils, but insisted that Veal should've been named MVP for throttling the Wolfpack's Lorenzo Charles (nine points) in a 69-63 opening-round win and Wake Forest's Kenny Green (14 points) and Duke's Mark Alarie (nine points) after that.
Going into the conference tournament, the ACC hoped to receive as many as six bids, but the NCAA tournament aspirants most in need of victories, N.C. State and Georgia Tech, lost in the first round and had to settle for the NIT. Still, the NCAA gave first-round byes to four of the five teams it invited. Aside from Maryland, invitations went to:
•North Carolina (27-2), the first team since N.C. State's 1974 national championship squad to go unbeaten in regular-season ACC play. Despite their conference tournament loss, the Tar Heels were awarded the top seed in the East Regional. But All-America forward Sam Perkins had a rough two games, first enduring the trauma of a broken jockstrap against Clemson and then playing miserably against Duke.
•Wake Forest (21-8) seemed to have a soap-opera cast more than a team when this season began. The roster included most of the guys who in 1982-83 had all but demanded the firing of coach Carl Tacy. But the Deacons patched things up and went unbeaten outside the conference. Their most improved player is Green, who was forced to leave school briefly last season after brandishing a butter knife at a teammate who had taunted him in a dining hall. In the first round, Tacy's band of much merrier men stole the ball 17 times from a very cavalier Virginia team en route to winning 63-51. Wake Forest? No, Sherwood Forest.
•Virginia (17-11), which didn't get an NCAA bye, exited the ACC tournament ignominiously, especially guard Othell Wilson. He drew a technical foul for bumping referee Joe Forte early in the second half against Wake Forest and charged after Forte when the game ended. Coach Terry Holland had suspended Wilson early in the season for losing his cool on the court.
•Duke (24-9) beat Carolina with a defense that coach Mike Krzyzewski, who pronounces his name shushef-skee and mercifully lets his players call him Coach K, swears by: a halfcourt prekrzure man-to-man that has become the Blue Devils' trademark. In 1982-83 that doctrinaire D often did in Duke. Krzyzewski acknowledges that he could've won a few more games last season by using a zone in certain situations, and at least one player criticized his inflexibility.
Back then Duke also had three seniors, all of whom had been recruited by Bill Foster, Krzyzewski's predecessor and a zone-oriented coach, and all of whom had been first-stringers. They didn't like seeing four freshmen starting in their stead. The Devils found themselves split into two camps. A few of the seniors even took to barking in the locker room in mock reference to their status.
This season, with 14 of their last 16 games decided by five points or fewer and/or in OT, the young Devils have been whipped into a unit. The nucleus includes guard Johnny Dawkins, Krzyzewski's first blue-chip recruit; guard Tommy Amaker, whose development has let Dawkins move off the point and who buried a 20-footer with eight seconds left to beat Georgia Tech 67-63 in the first round; Alarie, who averaged 20.1 points in conference play to make first-team all-ACC and outplayed Perkins with 21 points on Saturday; Dan Meagher, the bruising junior from Canada with the Wayne Gretzky hairdo; and Henderson, a poor man's Michael Jordan.
The ACC's unusual strength was a popular topic of conversation, if not debate, in Greensboro. Asked which he thought were the country's toughest conferences, Veal said, "ACC, ACC and ACC, in that order." Indeed, never had the conference's regular season been studded with so many overtime games (nine). And the ACC is the only league in which each team finished regular-season play with a record of better than .500. Every conference school but Clemson has been in someone's Top 20 at one time or another. The league's non-conference record was a phenomenal 100-11 (.901), and all of the losses were to NCAA-or NIT-bound teams.
There was a time, Driesell said, when he'd ready his screwdriver for each ACC tournament. "I was going to get my car down here, screw that trophy to the hood and drive around North Carolina for two weeks," he said. "But I'm too old for that now." But on Friday he let something slip. What, he was asked, would winning it mean to him?
"Answered prayers," he said.
When it was over, the Maryland pep band played the Amen chorus.