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The 25 Greatest Games in UNC Basketball History: #17 - The 1975 ACC Tournament Championship

The game that marked the end of David Thompson’s era and the start of Phil Ford’s

Phil Ford UNC

Once upon a time, many years ago, the NC State Wolfpack owned the North Carolina Tar Heels. From 1972 to 1975, Norm Sloan’s Pack beat Dean Smith’s Heels nine straight times. In the process, they completed a perfect season in 1973 (banned from the postseason due to recruiting violations) and followed it up by going 30-1 and winning the 1974 National Championship. That title-winning side won the greatest game in ACC history to that point - the 1974 ACC title game against Maryland - and dethroned John Wooden’s Bill Walton-led UCLA Bruins in the Final Four.

Meanwhile the Tar Heels, who had ended the 60s and started the 70s with so much promise and had featured some terrific players (Charlie Scott, Bob McAdoo, Bobby Jones, Billy Cunningham), had become the second best team in their own state.

That all changed on March 8th, 1975.

The 1975 Tournament was perhaps the greatest in ACC history. It featured not only the defending champion Wolfpack, but also a terrific Maryland squad, who were the regular season champs and out for blood after their devastating loss the previous year. Joining them were the red-hot Clemson Tigers, led by Tree Rollins, and a young Tar Heel squad that had come on strong late in the season, but were given little chance to overwhelm the conference heavyweights.

The tournament was a series of nail biters: The average margin of victory was three points, and no team won any game by more than six. The Tar Heels in particular experienced the jitters: They had to come from 8 down with 56 seconds left to survive Wake Forest in overtime (benefitting from a very fortunate call where a full court heave was said to have nicked the bottom of the scoreboard), then beat Clemson 76-71 in overtime the following night. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack edged Maryland on a three-point play with 7 seconds left to win 87-85.

The Wolfpack returned most of their championship squad, losing only the 7’3 Tommy Burleson from the previous year’s starters. Little Monte Towe, Morris Rivers, and Phil Spence were all back, and were joined by terrific freshman Kenny Carr.

And then there was David Thompson. Younger college fans may not appreciate how big of a star Thompson was, so here’s the best way I can explain it: You know all the hype Zion Williamson got this year? Imagine that for three years, and each year he gets better and wins more. Michael Jordan’s favorite player growing up was Thompson. In 1975, he was named National Player of the Year. By the time he graduated, he was indisputably the best player in ACC history (and probably still is). And, due to NCAA Tournament bid rules, he needed to beat the Tar Heels to continue his college career after that night.

UNC on the other hand was a young team led by junior Mitch Kupchak, sophomores Walter Davis, Tommy LaGarde, and John Kuester, and a freshman phenom named Phil Ford. The Heels had ended their losing streak to NC State in Carmichael two weeks earlier, but had dropped the first two meetings to the Wolfpack. Ford had carried the Tar Heels through the first two tournament games, averaging 27 points coming into the title bout.

UNC came out strong, going 15-24 in the first half and grabbing a 41-35 halftime lead. Davis was responsible for checking Thompson, who was having an off-night, hampered by cramps that he had also experienced the night before against the Terrapins. The Tar Heels also went to a matchup zone defense that frustrated State’s offense throughout the game. But the Wolfpack punched back in the second half and took the lead, 55-52 midway through the second interval. Then it was Phil Ford time.

Ford went on the attack, scoring eight points as part of an 11-0 Carolina run. His size advantage on Towe, as well as his speed with the ball, made him almost impossible to stop. Dean Smith reverted to the Four Corners, seeking to kill off the game. The Wolfpack struggled to chase the ball when it was in the hands of the elusive freshman, committing a series of fouls. They also lost their veteran poise, arguing the calls throughout and being whistled for three technical fouls over the course of the game (and starting a proud NC State tradition of blaming the refs whenever they lose to Carolina).

But in the closing minutes, the Wolfpack made one last push, pulling within just two points and testing the younger Heels. Ford answered the call, bleeding clock and then hitting a clutch layup to push the lead to two possessions. A missed Wolfpack shot and a Ford-to-Kupchak layup later and there was a new champion of the ACC. King David’s reign was over: Long Live Phil. The Tar Heels won it, 70-66.

In his last game, Thompson went just 7-21 from the field. Ford, who finished with 24 points, was named MVP of the ACC Tournament, the first freshman to win the award. Draped in the game net, clutching both the Tournament trophy and the MVP plaque, he was serenaded by chants of “Three more years!” from the UNC faithful (bear in mind that the President’s name was Ford at the time as well). The Phil Ford Era had begun and would include winning the ACC by four games in 1976, winning the ACCT and reaching the Final Four in 1977, and winning National Player of the Year in 1978.

The upset of State in Greensboro may not have won UNC a national championship, but it established the Tar Heels’ long term dominance over their neighbors in Raleigh. The Wolfpack would never return to the heights of the David Thompson-Norm Sloan Era (not even when Valvano’s Cardiac Pack won it all in 1983), and by the time the 80s rolled around, the Tar Heels were firmly established as the dominant team in the state of North Carolina, a position State has never again seriously threatened for, and one that has been essential for UNC collecting the lion’s share of in-state recruits for decades to come.