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Friday, March 13, 2009

Playing for All the Marbles

The six-overtime thriller between Syracuse and Connecticut in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament will certainly go down as one of the greatest conference tournament games in college basketball history. The game included all the highs and lows associated with a classic tournament confrontation, but imagine just how much greater the intensity might have been if the loser knew that their season and chance to win the National Championship was over without even having the opportunity to compete in the NCAA Tournament.

That was the scenario 35 years ago on March 9, 1974 when North Carolina State and Maryland met in the finals of the ACC Basketball Tournament. The game would go down in history as one of the greatest games in college basketball history and directly result in changes that helped turn the NCAA Tournament into “March Madness.”

When the Wolfpack and Terrapins took the floor at the Greensboro Coliseum, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Both teams were ranked in the top-5 in the country, but only the winner would get a chance to unseat seven-time defending NCAA Champion UCLA. While today 65 teams reach the NCAA Tournament with 34 of those bids going to at-large teams, back in 1974 the NCAA Tournament included 25 teams with all bids reserved for conference champions and major independents.

Both teams were filled with All-Americans and future NBA stars. High-flying David Thompson, center Tom Burleson and guard Monte Towe led N.C. State while the Terrapins had their own stars in guard John Lucas, forward Tom McMillen and center Len Elmore. In all, the NBA would eventually draft a total of ten players from the two teams.

Despite playing their third game in three nights, Maryland, which had easily defeated Duke and North Carolina to reach the finals, raced to an early advantage and led by as many as 13 points in the first half. The top-seeded Wolfpack received a first round bye in the seven-team league and had easily dispatched the University of Virginia in the semifinals.

The Wolfpack recovered from their early deficit and in the second half was clearly the fresher team as they rode the hot shooting of Burleson and Thompson to catch the Terrapins. With the game tied at 97-97, Maryland had the ball with time running out in regulation. John Lucas missed a last second shot as the game went into overtime.

A basket by Phil Spence with 1:59 remaining in overtime gave the Wolfpack the lead and a pair of free throws by Monte Towe in the finals seconds ensured the 103-100 victory and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

N.C. State went on to defeat UCLA in double overtime of the NCAA Semifinals and then earned the national title with a win over Marquette. Despite finishing the season ranked number four in the country, Maryland’s season ended with that loss as they chose not participate in the National Invitational Tournament. The 1974 Terrapins are still considered the best team not to participate in the NCAA Tournament.

Recognizing the need to ensure that future top teams did not suffer a similar fate to the Terrapins, the NCAA expanded the tournament to 32 teams in 1975 to allow for at-large participants. The field expanded to 40 teams in 1979, 48 teams in 1980 and to 64 teams in 1985.

So, while Connecticut fans may be disappointed that their team will not claim the Big East Tournament Championship, they can take solace in the fact that the Huskies still have a chance to cut down the nets next month at the Final Four in Detroit.

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