Like every other ongoing soap opera, the Life and Times of Ralph Sampson has its mundane episodes. And then there are the climaxes.

Without any clues, Sampson suddenly hit the heights in the second half of Virginia's 89-72 victory over Virginia Commonwealth in the first round of the Richmond Times-Dispatch Invitational tonight.

Old Dominion, the defending champion, defeated Richmond, 90-84, in the second game and will play Virginia in a 9 p.m. championship game Saturday after the 7 o'clock consolation.

The Cavaliers could be tough to beat, based on tonight's opener.

After the teams dueled in a trance for the first half, the 7-foot-4 freshman ran off a streak of 17 points, seven rebounds and five blocked shots.

Sampson wanted the ball.

"I played, well . . . badly in the first half," he said. "When I hit a couple of outside shots in the second half, I felt good. I was looking for my shot."

After scoring just five points in the first half, Sampson made eight of 10 shots in the second half and was the game's high scorer with 22 points.

Normally shy and subdued, Sampson was yelling out instructions on defense and calling for the ball on offense. It even carried over into the locker room.

"This was definitely my best game of the year," he said emphatically. "I'm getting my inside game together and I'm learning when to go for the blocked shot and when to take the charge."

Sampson blocked three shots in a four-minute spurt at the outset of the second half. With Virginia Commonwealth leading, 52-51, and 16:15 remaining, Sampson made a driving layup off a Jeff Lamp assist and then blocked a Ram shot, got the carom and passed ahead for a jumper by Jeff Jones.

After a Ram timeout, the Cavalier defense tightened and Sampson's rebounds and outlet passes triggered baskets by Mike Owens and Lee Raker. Virginia, whose biggest lead in the first half was four, now led nine, 61-52. The Cavs held their lead, then blew the game open in the last two minutes.

"We weren't aggressive as a team in the first half," said Sampson. "We just needed someone to spark us and I started feeling good, so I was the one."

Raker and Lamp, who had anemic first halves with five and four points, respectively, on a combined four of 14 from the floor, also came out rejuvenated after intermission.Lamp hit five of six shots while Raker meshed five or eight in the second half.

"Ralph put everything together tonight," said Lamp, who scored 16 points for the night with nine rebounds and seven assists. "As for me, my first four games of the year were the worst I've ever played, but I'm coming out of it and playing a more complete game."

Raker, who finished with 17, added, "Ralph's been playing well all year, he just hasn't been scoring. There's a difference between playing well and scoring."

Cav Coach Terry Holland said Sampson's sudden explosion in the second half, "is what happens to a young player when he hits three or four shots in a row. We were playing unaggressive ball in the first half. Jeff Jones kept us in the game or Ralph's streak may not have been enough to get us going."

Jones, the Cav point guard, scored 10 points in the first half with four of five from the floor. Virginia Commonwealth was getting offense from guards Monty Knight and Edmund Sherod, who had 13 and nine points, respectively, in the first half as the Rams went into the locker room with a 42-40 lead and the 10,716 fans dreaming of an upset. Knight and Sherod went on to score 21 and 19, respectively, as the upset dream turned into the Sampson nightmare.

"What I'd like to see happen, is for Ralph to turn his three- or four-bucket streak into a three- or four-game streak," said Holland.