No. 1-ranked Virginia returned to the place where it all began tonight and almost saw it end.
About 11 months ago, the Cavaliers came into national prominence by earning the National Invitational Tournament championship here at Madison Square Garden and left with a five-game winning streak.
That victory string reached 25 tonight, but the 20-0 Cavs, ranked first in the AP and second in the UPI, had a few anxious moments before putting away Wagner College, 76-69, in the second game of a doubleheader.
An appreciative crowd of 11,997 watched Fordham whip St. Peter's, 58-47, in the first game, then was treated to a concert by the Buddy Rich band before the Ralph Sampson-led Cavs took center stage.
Much to the shock of the Cavs -- showing some effects of their emotionally draining 80-79 overtime win at North Carolina Tuesday night -- and the delight of the partisan New Yorkers, tiny Wagner gave Virginia 35 minutes of headaches before running out of gas.
"Yes, I was concerned about a letdown, but that's something you don't talk about before a game," said relieved Coach Terry Holland. "We were a little tired from the travel and Wagner did a few things to slow us down. We wanted to get a point cushion but we fell behind. We've been coming from behind and winning and maybe they wanted to practice again."
Wagner (11-7), winner of its last four games, sent the Garden folks into a frenzy bu nudging ahead 42-41 on a layup by Mike Nelson with 13:24 remaining. The Seahawks got two more quick baskets and a Sampson free throw and led, 46-42, before Sampson (19 points, 18 rebounds) and Jeff Lamp (26 points) decided Wagner had enjoyed the spotlight long enough.
Lamp scored 10 of his 16 second-half points and Sampson had five points as the Cavs spurted ahead, 65-52, with 4:31 to play.
"We didn't do anything different in the second half. We wanted to get the ball inside to Ralph and work from there," said Lamp. "The Wagner zone caused us a few problems in the first half and we knew they would be scrappy. We finally got it together."
Just when it appeared to be turning into a rout, the Seahawks rallied. Daymon Yizar, a 6-foot-3 player who outjumped the 7-foot-4 Sampson for several of his 20 rebounds, began to score inside, and Nelson and Jamie Ciampaglio hit four baskets from the outside and suddently the Seahawks had crept to within six points, 73-67, with 1:17 remaining.
"I always felt we had an opportunity to win," said Seahawk Coach P. J. Carlesimo. "I'm sure UVa. didn't play as well as they can and I know people will say they probably were a bit tired. Hey, they aren't a pro team and the travel had to hurt them some. They aren't ranked first for nothing. They're a great team and a great team will always find a way to win."
One way for the Cavs to win is to give the ball to Sampson. So on their next two trips down court, they threw the ball inside and Wagner had no choice but to foul him to prevent him from dunking. Sampson hit three free throws to ensure the victory.
"We did a good job of collapsing on him in the first half," Carlesimo said. "But we couldn't do it all night."
In the first half, the Wagner zone held Sampson to three dunks. But Lamp and Lee Raker scored often enough to send the Cavs to the locker room at halftime leading, 36-28.
Wagner came out running and eventually overtook the Cavs. The Seahawks actually outscored the Cavs from the floor, 60-56, and were outrebounded by only four, 44-40, but the Cavs sank 20 of 34 free throws.