Finishing first in the regular-season gave Duke the top seed in the ACC Tournament and nothing else. Only only one team per conference made the NCAAs until 1975 and the ACC decided its entry in a stress-laden, three-day, winner-take all tournament.
The Blue Devils opened with Frank McGuire’s first South Carolina team.
This should have been an easy game.
On paper. South Carolina was 6-16, Duke 18-4.
But McGuire’s specialty was the kind of zone defense that slowed down and frustrated fast-break teams.
The game was tied at 60 with about a minute remaining and Duke on the defense. Vacendak got a steal and passed it ahead to Marin, who missed but followed to put Duke up 62-60, with 41 seconds left.
South Carolina missed two shots in the final seconds and Duke escaped.
Verga led everyone with 25 points.
Duke seemed to have righted the ship with a 101-81 win over Wake Forest in the semifinals. Duke led 42-37 at the half and hit 13 of their first 14 shots after intermission to pull away.
This was Duke’s first triple-digit game in the ACC Tournament.
Vacendak led Duke with 25 points. Marin added 20 points and 11 rebounds.
Wake’s Bones McKinney coached his last college game in that loss.
McKinney coached in eight ACC Tournaments. He won twice. The other six times he lost to Duke.
North Carolina State was the last team left in the opposing bracket.
State was pretty good in 1965, arguably their best team of that decade. Future college coach Eddie Biedenbach probably has the highest name recognition today but their best player was burly 6-7 center Larry Lakins, a 25-year-old military vet and Everett Case’s last Hoosier Hotshot.
There were some compelling sidebars. The tournament was still held on the NC State campus in Reynolds Coliseum. Duke had won both regular-season games against the Wolfpack but had to go into overtime to win at Reynolds.
Case had begun the season as State’s head coach but resigned after two games, gravely ill with the multiple myeloma that would take his life in 1966. Case was a visible presence at the proceedings and an inspiration to his old team, which vowed to win it for him.
To honor him the ACC decided to name the tournament’s most outstanding player award for Case. The Case Award was first presented in 1965.
Case was succeeded by assistant coach Press Maravich, whose son Pete was starring a few miles away at Raleigh’s Broughton High School.
Duke had its offense in gear, leading State 43-40 at the half.
But the Wolfpack had a secret weapon.
Larry Worsley was a 6-5 junior from the eastern North Carolina crossroads community of Oak City. He ended the regular season averaging fewer than five points per game.
But Worsley scored 29 points in State’s two wins, a great performance off the bench. But not good enough for him to get the starting nod for the title game.
Billy Moffit got the starting nod but went to the bench after five minutes, with three fouls.
Worsley found a soft spot in Duke’s zone, right in the corner and Duke never figured out how to stop him. Worsley ended up hitting 14-of-19 from the field on the way to a 30-point performance.
Off the bench.
Duke led by six midway through the second half but State took the lead for good at 63-62 and held on for a 91-85 win, a 51-42 advantage in the second half. Maravich and then Case cut down the nets, Worsley won the first Case Award, while Duke watched in stunned disbelief, its season over at 20-5.
The NIT? The ACC did not allow its teams to play in that New York City-based tournament until 1967 in fear that gamblers would get their claws into ACC players, a narrative supported by the early 1960s point-shaving scandals.
NC State didn’t exactly build on its ACC-Tournament momentum. The ice-cold Wolfpack was buried by Princeton 66-48. State shot 17-for-66 from the field.
Adding insult to injury for Duke was the fact that Princeton was led by star senior Bill Bradley, a player who had committed to Duke and signed institutional letters before changing for Princeton days before the beginning of his freshman orientation.
Bubas once said that watching Bradley play almost made him physically ill. Hopefully, Bubas was at the beach the week Bradley led Princeton to the 1965 Final Four.
Duke was ranked eighth in the Final AP poll. Verga and Marin were named first-team All-ACC, Vacendak second team.
The Blue Devils ended up averaging 92.4 points per game, still a school record. The 1999 team is second, at 91.8 ppg. And that team averaged almost eight made three-pointers per game.
Only the 1973 and 1975 David-Thompson-led NC State teams have bettered that mark in ACC annals.
Would Duke have done better than NC State in the 1965 East Regional? Looking at what Duke did in 1963, 1964 and 1966, it’s easy to make the case. But the pride of Oak City, North Carolina helped make that a moot question.