NC State was in the Final Four, but the team standing in their way to a spot in the championship game was none other than the basketball dynasty known as UCLA.
UCLA had won seven consecutive national championships and, earlier in the 1973-74 season, had humiliated the Wolfpack 84-66 in a game played in St. Louis, Mo. (The site, as it happens, of another big NC State game tonight.) It was the only game that NC State, led by David Thompson and Tommy Burleson, lost that season.
“We just weren’t good enough to win that day,” point guard Monte Towe said in an account in NC State Basketball: 100 Years of Tradition, by Tim Peeler and Roger Winstead.
But on this day in 1974, NC State was more than good enough to win. As every Pack fan knows, NC State defeated UCLA 80-77 in double overtime. Two days later, the Pack defeated Marquette to win the national championship. The Sporting News says the 1973-74 NC State team was one of the 10 greatest college basketball teams of all time.
We recently talked with Burleson about the UCLA game and his personal rivalry with Bruins’ center Bill Walton.
“That was the game that was going to make or break what we were doing,” Burleson said. “It was do or die.”
Burleson said Walton showed him no respect, “as usual,” and was demanding the ball from his teammates as time was running out.
“They needed a basket and he said ‘Throw me the ball,'” Burleson recalled. “As we got down and set up in defense, (Jamaal) Wilkes had the ball. I cut off the passing lane and stole the ball. A pump fake would have burned me big time, but I went with my gut and jumped the route and stole the ball. That sort of sealed the game.”
Burleson and his teammates reacted with a mixture of elation and relief. “We were really happy after the UCLA game,” Burleson said, “because we knew we had gotten over the big hurdle.”