The Atlantic Coast Conference was founded in 1953, with competition kicking off later that year. The first ACC Basketball Tournament was held from March 4-6, 1954 in Raleigh, with hosts NC State coming out on top.
While State under Everett Case were undoubtedly a good program during this period, and won the first three editions of the tournament. The fact that it was played on their home court couldn’t have hurt, however.
In the 1956 edition, State and UNC tied for the regular season title, splitting the regular season series after each winning on their home floor. Both went into the tournament ranked in the top ten in the poll, yet once they got to Raleigh, State again took the title. Meanwhile, UNC ran into Wake Forest, another ranked team, in the semifinals and lost by 21.
That wouldn’t be the biggest deal now, but back then, it meant the Tar Heels couldn’t go to the NCAA Tournament. Until 1975, only a conference’s champion got a bid. Controversially, the ACC awarded their bid to the tournament champion instead of the regular season, like most conferences did at the time. Carolina head coach Frank McGuire railed against this practice, but his protestations wouldn’t change anything. Despite being ranked in the top 15 for all but two weeks 1955-56, UNC’s season was over after the loss to the Demon Deacons.
Next year, the Tar Heels came back even better, going undefeated through the regular season. Yet once again, the season would come down to three days on another team’s home floor.
In the opening round, UNC didn’t have any issues, beating Clemson by 20, as star Lennie Rosenbluth scored 45 points. Meanwhile, fifth seeded NC State lost in the ACC Tournament for the first time, falling to the Tar Heels’ semifinal opponent in the quarterfinals. That opponent would be Wake Forest, meaning the Demon Deacons once again stood in the way of Carolina’s NCAA Tournament hopes.
Despite going in as the fourth seed, Wake was the only other ranked team in that year’s ACC Tournament. UNC had swept the regular season series against them, but all three games were decided by eight points or fewer.
In the semifinal, the Tar Heels jumped out to an early lead, but Wake Forest reeled them back in and went into halftime down just four. The Demon Deacons used a 1-1-3 zone to slow down Rosenbluth and the UNC offense, and to some degree, it worked. However, as they game went on, Carolina began to dominate the rebounding battle, and Wake went back to man-to-man.
UNC led by five with a little over two minutes remaining, but Wake then scored the next six points, taking a lead with a minute remaining. The last two of those points came on free throws by Jim Gilley. While Gilley was on the line, Wake decided to return to the zone, but word did not reach the shooter. He made the second shot and stayed with his man as Carolina brought the ball down the other end, and the miscommunication left Rosenbluth open. He was quickly fed the ball and took a dribble towards the basket. A Demon Deacon player rotated over to cover and collided with Rosenbluth as the shot went up. It went in, but a whistle was blown. The referee called it a block in what was a highly disputed call. The ensuing free throw was made and Carolina hung on down the other end, winning the game by two.
There wouldn’t be any further issues in the final. Sixth seeded South Carolina had upset Duke and Maryland in the first two rounds. The Tar Heels wouldn’t be the third team to fall victim, and won by 20 to earn the NCAA Tournament berth.
It took even more dramatics, but UNC won the NCAA Tournament as well, completing an undefeated season.
North Carolina has gone on to win another 17 ACC Tournaments, with the most recent coming in 2016. Between the circumstances, the revenge, and what was on the line, few would have been as meaningful as the victory in 1957.
Walker, J. Samuel. ACC Basketball: the Story of the Rivalries, Traditions, and Scandals of the First Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.