As a kid growing up in Virginia (and 35 miles out of Charlottesville), I thought the ACC Basketball Tournament was one of the top sporting events in the country.
Sadly, with the expansion of the NCAA Tournament field and the advent of ESPN, “The ACC”, as we used to call the tournament, does not mean as much as it used to. This is not a knock on the conference because the same can be said of all conference tournaments. Heck, it’s gotten to the point where we could just do away with them and go directly to the “Big Dance.” But I digress….
Let’s go back and look at the Top 5 best championship games from the tournament that was the very best college basketball had to offer.
5.) 1989 ACC Championship Game: North Carolina 77, Duke 74
The storied rivalry between the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils did not get any better than the 1988-89 season in which each team lost on their own home court to the other. With the series tied at 1-1 on the season, the two schools met for the tourney championship on March 12th at the Omni. The Heels held on for a three point win as Duke’s Danny Ferry’s 70-foot try hit the back of the rim as time expired. The win was the 11th ACC Championship for the Tar Heels. Scott Williams had 11 points and 11 rebounds in the win, and J.R. Reid was named tourney MVP.
4.) 1971 ACC Championship Game: South Carolina 52, North Carolina 51
The thriller between the top seeded Tar Heels and number two seeded South Carolina came down to a final shot. With :02 seconds to go in the game, and trailing by one point, a lay up by Tom Owens off of a jump ball gave the Gamecocks, and legendary coach Frank McGuire, their only ACC Basketball Championship as the team would leave the conference the following season. The Gamecock’s John Roche, one of the best players in the school’s history, was named co-MVP of the tournament along with Lee Dedmon of North Carolina. The win propelled South Carolina to the first of four straight NCAA Tournament appearances under McGuire.
3.) 1995 ACC Championship Game: Wake Forest 82, North Carolina 80 (OT)
This was the Randolph Childress tournament. The Demon Deacons star scored 37 points in the championship game, including all nine Wake Forest points in overtime. His game winner came on a 10-foot shot with a little less than :05 to go in overtime. The Deacs had to hold on as Jerry Stackhouse launched a three pointer that missed on the other end. Childress scored a combined 107 points in his three games of the ’95 tournament in Greensboro and was, of course, named MVP.
2.) 1976 ACC Championship Game: Virginia 67, North Carolina 62
To steal a line that I read somewhere after the big UVA win, “The Cavaliers proved that not only can you take the ACC Tournament out of North Carolina, but you can take North Carolina out of the ACC Tournament.” I think it was a line from Sports Illustrated. The tournament, played at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland was the first one played outside of the state of North Carolina. Sixth-seeded Virginia beat third-seeded NC State and second-seeded Maryland on their way to facing the mighty Tar Heels in the title game. The Heels were 24-2 heading into the title game and fourth in the nation under Dean Smith. Terry Holland’s Cavaliers were led by Wally Walker, the tourney MVP, who scored 21 points and pulled seven rebounds in the title game. How big was this win? Ask anyone growing up in Virginia at that time. I personally consider this one of my Top 5 moments as a young fan.
1.) 1974 ACC Tournament Championship Game: North Carolina State 103, Maryland 100 (OT)
If you were a fan of college basketball back in the 1970’s, there are two things you know. First of all, you are old. Secondly, the 1974 ACC title game between the Wolfpack and Terrapins was one of the greatest college basketball games ever played. NC State entered the game as the number one team in the country, and Maryland was ranked third. One of the story lines which made this game so great was that back then only ONE team from each conference made it to the NCAA Tournament. So this game was enormous. The Wolfpack were led by David Thompson, Tom Burleson and Monte Towe and would go on to beat Bill Walton and UCLA for the NCAA crown. Maryland, under Lefty Drisell had Len Elmore, John Lucas and Tom McMillen. Burleson scored 38 points and had 13 rebounds in the game and was named MVP. Maryland became know as the greatest team to never make the NCAA Tournament and the game was a key reason the “Big Dance” field was expanded the following season.