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Conference Tournament Historical Perspective - Sixth Time Was the Charm

The 1984 ACC Tournament was an Amen moment for the Maryland Terrapins and Lefty Driesell

Lefty Driesell (far left) posing with the 1984 ACC Tournament Championship Trophy with Maryland basketball players and Washington, DC restaurateur Duke Zeibert
Joel Richardson/The Washington Post

The Big 10 Men’s Basketball Tournament has only been around since 1998. Prior to that, the regular season determined the conference champion and the automatic (and prior to 1975 only) bid to the NCAA Tournament. Given the Big Ten’s limited history, I thought I would recall and discuss a very unexpected and long overdue conference tournament championship for recent Big Ten addition Maryland.

As I wrote ('wrote') a few months ago, Lefty Driesell literally put the University of Maryland men's basketball program on the map. Driesell's tenure included 2 ACC regular season titles, 5 Sweet Sixteens, 2 Elite Eights, and coaching many great players (including former #1 overall recruits Tom McMillan and Albert King). Aside from reaching the Final Four, the one thing which posed the greatest challenge for Driesell's Terrapins was winning the ACC Tournament.

Many agonizing Maryland losses occurred during the ACC Tournament; including what some consider to be the greatest men's basketball game ever played in 1974. In fact, prior to the 1983-84 season Driesell had led Maryland to the ACC Tournament finals 5 times: only to come up empty against North Carolina (1972 and 1981), North Carolina State (1973 and 1974), and Duke (1980). There were other painful ACC Tournament losses such as the 1976 semi-finals against Virginia (which cost Maryland an appearance in the 1976 NCAA Tournament, as only one at-large team from each conference was allowed in at that time); but the 5 losses in the ACC Tournament finals appeared to be Lefty Driesell's infamous legacy.

The 1983-84 season seemed to be like others at this stage of Driesell's career; a talented team that could and would win a lot of games, but not quite good enough to get over the top and be considered elite. Maryland went 20-7 during the regular season and a very respectable 9-5 in conference play (the 2 nonconference losses were to Ohio State at the New Jersey Meadowlands and against Digger Phelps' Notre Dame team in South Bend). In fact, Maryland had earned the #2 seed for the 1984 ACC Tournament.

Just one problem though for Maryland. the #1 seed was Dean Smith's North Carolina Tar Heels; who had gone 26-1 in the regular season and 14-0 in conference play (the loss being by 1 point at Arkansas). The Tar Heels had eight McDonalds All-Americans on their roster: Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan, Brad Daugherty, Kenny Smith, Matt Dorherty, Buzz Peterson, Joe Wolf, and Dave Popson. (For comparison, Maryland had 3: Adrian Branch, Jeff Adkins, and Keith Gatlin). And if talent alone didn't make the Tar Heels seem invincible, Dean Smith's infuriating four-corners offense literally took the air out of the ball whenever the Tar Heels got a second-half lead and about 5 minutes or less to go in the game.

1984 ACC Tournament MVP Len Bias
The Washington Times

The 1984 ACC Tournament got off to an expected start, with #2 seed Maryland dispatching #7 seed (and defending ACC and National Champion NC State coached by Jim Valvano) 69-63; setting up a semi-final matchup against #3 seed Wake Forest. Most people - 17 year old me included - thought that the Maryland -v- Wake game would simply determine who would lose to North Carolina in the finals. But a funny thing happened along the way: #4 seed Duke upset #1 seed North Carolina 77-75 in the ACC Tournament Semi-Finals (avenging a heartbreaking double-overtime loss to the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill in the regular season finale).

In the second semi-final Maryland jumped out to a 61-50 second-half lead against #3 seed Wake Forest. As was the case in the pre-shot clock era; Maryland attempted to take the air out of the ball. The Terps ran Lefty Driesell's double-high-stack delay offense: and damned near shot themselves in the foot. The lead nearly disappeared; however, the Terps held on for the 66-64 victory. Heading into the finals against his alma mater Duke Driesell quipped, "I'm trying to be loose and low key. I can't get hung up on winning this thing, otherwise I would have shot myself four or five years ago." The ironic part is that quip came from a coach who was 0-5 in his previous appearances in the ACC Tournament Finals.

In the ACC Tournament Finals things didn't look good for Maryland at the start. Duke jumped out to an early 6-0 lead. However, Maryland settled down after bringing freshman point guard Keith Gatlin off the bench. After trailing by as many as 8 points in the first half, Maryland had cut Duke's lead to 3; with the Blue Devils taking a 30-27 lead into the locker room.

The second half started similarly as the first half, with Duke surging to a 42-34 lead; giving every indication that Lefty Driesell might fall to 0-6 in the ACC Tournament Finals. However, behind Tournament MVP Len Bias and Keith Gatlin Maryland took a 46-45 lead: the last lead-change of the game. Employing a 2-3 zone Maryland went on a 24-3 run extending their lead to 58-45 as the game entered garbage time. Punctuating their performance with several Len Bias highlight-reel dunks, Maryland finished off Duke 77-64 for just their second-ever ACC Tournament title (the first coming in 1958).

Perhaps motivated by being left off of the All-ACC First Team, Len Bias solidified his place as a great player by his 26 point performance in the finals against Duke. This followed up a 15 point effort against Wake Forest in Saturday's Semi-Finals. After earning the ACC Tournament title, Maryland advanced to the Mideast Regional Sweet 16 before losing to Lou Henson's Illinois team 72-70. As an interesting side-note, Illinois 'reward' for knocking off Maryland in the Sweet 16 was having to play Kentucky in the Elite 8 - which just happened to be played at Lexington's Rupp Arena (the last time the NCAA permitted a team to play Sweet 16 and/or Elite 8 games on their home court).

To this 17 year old high school senior watching the game on NBC (the game was actually carried nationally on NBC and regionally on Raycom back then) it was vindication for Lefty Driesell. Despite overtures that he would turn Maryland into the 'UCLA of the East' and that he would tie the ACC Tournament trophy to the hood of his car and drive through North Carolina; Driesell had previously experienced 5 very bitter losses in the finals (the last 2 of which, in 1980 and 1981, were by a total of 2 points). Perhaps as a bit of additional poetic justice, Lefty didn't have to face off against old nemesis Dean Smith this time, but a young Duke head coach named Mike Krzyzewski in the finals. But above all else, on the Sunday afternoon in Greensboro, North Carolina the Terrapins and their Duke alum head coach FINALLY got to sing the Amen Chorus on the sixth try.

As an epilogue, Lefty Driesell has been named a finalist for the Naismith Hall of Fame for the fourth time. Driesell’s the only coach to lead four Division I teams to 100 victories (Davidson, Maryland, James Madison, and Georgia State) in addition to leading all 4 to the NCAA Tournament. Mike Krzyzewski is even lobbying to get this Duke honors graduate into the Hall of Fame. If there’s any justice in the world, I’ll be driving down I-90 in short time to see The Lefthander take his rightful place in the Naismith Hall of Fame.