It is time to stop talking about Ralph Sampson's potential and start talking about how good he is right now.
Today, Sampson was (pick one or all) amazing, incrediable, unbelievable, overwhelming, fabulous. He did things that left his own teammates and coaches shaking their heads. By the time the carrion that had been Ohio State was cleared from University Hall, second-ranked Virginia had raced to an 89-73 victory and Sampson had scored a career-high 40 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and fouled out the Ohio State front line.
"They were playing behind me, and that's the way I like it." said Sampson, more expansive it seems with each Virginia win. The nation's longest collegiate winning streak is now at 21, 16 this season.
"I wanted the ball in the low post because I had the feeling I could take it to the basket against any of their big men," said Sampson.
"They were as physical as anyonme I've played against. I'm sore right now, my back hurts. But I'm okay."
At the other end of the hall, Ohio State Coach Eldon Miller was claiming that Virginia's victory was a hoax perpetrated by the ACC officiating crew.
"We were the straight men in a comedy act today,"said Miller of his team, now 9-6. "That (the officiating) was a joke."
Unless the officials planned Ohio Stat's defensive strategy it would be difficult to blame them for the defeat today. Big Ten basketball means man-to-man defense even if the other team has a 7-foot-4 center who seems to have every shot in the world available to him. And so, for 90 percent of the game, Ohio State tried to do the undoable -- guard Sampson straight up.
That was, to put it kindly, suicide.
A year ago, when Ohio State beat Virginia, 70-65, in Columbus, Sampson was a freshman, still learning, still slightly intimidated by the sight of Herb Williams, OSU's fine center, then a junior.
Times have changed. On Virginia's first two possessions today, Sampson went right at Williams and drew fouls. Then, less than three minutes into the game, Jim Smith jumped high and blocked a Sampson shot. Sampson twisted his ankle when he landed.
The gym grew quiet as Sampson hobbled to the locker room. Lewis Lattimore came in, hit a short jump shot, made a three-point play and when Smampson returned with 13:59 left after an absence of 3:16, it was 12-11, Virginia.
Almost immediately, he went back to work. A short jumper, then a hook and a 10-foot bank shot. A dunk off a lobbed inbounds pass from Jeff Jones made it 26-17, Cavaliers, with eight minutes left in the half.
Sampson ran to the other end, rebounded a miss by Carter Scott -- OSU high man with 13 points -- then waltzed downcourt. Lee Raker set a pick and Sampson rolled to the hoop for another lob from Jones.
"The minute I let go of the pass, I knew I'd over thrown it," Jones said. "I figured it was going to hit the backboard and come off hard. It was a terrible pass."
Except that it was thrown toward Sampson. As the pass sailed over his head, Sampson reached way back, stopped it with one hand and in the same motion brought it down and through the hoop -- SLAM -- for an unbelievable dunk.
"I don't usually smile or laugh on the court," Jones said, "but when I saw that, I just looked at him and said, 'Whooo.' I'm glad he's on my side."
"There are times." Coach Terry Holland said, "that he does something like that and you just go, 'Golly, how does he do that?'"
As if to prove he could do anything on this day, Sampson came down on Virginia's next possession, took the ball 17 feet out, double-pumped and swished a jumper. By now, Ohio State was shell-shocked. The Cavaliers extended their lead to 36-19 (a 14-2 spre) before the Buckeyes recovered. It was 44-29 at the half, Sampson already having 24.
To its credit, Ohio State didn't quit, cutting the lead to 53-47 on an eight-foot shot by Williams with 14:25 left. Clark Kellogg (12 points, 12 rebounds) blocked a Raker drive and went the length of the court -- and missed Jones rebounded, went the length of the court himself, made the layup and was fouled, putting Virginia back up by nine with 13:56 left.
"I just figured it was time to take a shot," said Jones, who played his usual superb all-around game with nine points and six assists. "The lane was there, I took it."
Thirty-three seconds later, Williams was called for his fifth foul, the one time OSU had a legitimate beef, sinceit was away from the ball and was a no-harm push, no different from dozens of others.
But the Buckeyes weren't likely to win this one anyway. Although Jeff Lamp had an off day offensively (four for nine from the floor, three for eight from the line, 11 points), Virginia, shooting 57 percent, was in control.
Even though he was only six for 1i from the foul line and took a pounding in the second half, Sampson seemed able to do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted as the Buckeyes were never within 10 the last 10 minutes.
Sampson's biggest problem was Smith, who pushed, elbowed, shoved and talked at him until he fouled out with 1:37 left.
"He was grabbing anything he could, skin, my arms, shoulders, pushing and shoving all day," Sampson said. "I don't know what kind of game he was playing. I was just trying to play basketball."