In the end, after two hours of superb basketball, after Orlando Woolridge made an 18-foot jump shot with two seconds to play, after Notre Dame had pulled yet another miracle, this one shocking top-ranked Virginia, 57-56, it was Kelly Tripucka who said it best today.
"It just had to happen again," the Notre Dame senior said. "Every year, we do something like this. At the finish we just said to each other, 'We're meant for this moment, we've worked our butts off for it.'
"We just knew . . ."
Tripucka may have known, but few among the 16,546 jammed into the sweatbox they call the Horizon could have foreseen Woolridge's desperate shot going in after a mad scramble during which most of the 10 players seemed to touch the ball at least once.
Virginia (23-1) had not won 28 straight without pulling out some of these. And, for most of the second half, the Cavaliers appeared in control, even with the double-teamed Ralph Sampson being held to 10 points. They led, 49-43, with 6:59 to go, and still led, 56-53, after Jeff Jones made a foul shot with 35 seconds left. John Paxson made two free throws for the Irish with 25 seconds remaining. Then, the frantic finish unfolded.
Virginia got the ensuing inbounds pass to Jeff Lamp, who dribbled across halfcourt, then tried to pass to Lee Raker.But Bill Varner intercepted and hurled the ball downcourt for Tracy Jackson.
A Virginia player caught up with the ball and flipped it backward, to Tripucka. He went for the basket and was hammered. But before the foul, ACC official Lenny Wirtz called Tripucka for traveling, a call that a television replay showed to be correct.
That gave Virginia the ball with 10 seconds left, under Notre Dame's basket. Each team called a timeout. "It was time," said Digger Phelps, coach of the Irish, "to gamble."
The gamble was a simple one. The Irish left inbounder Raker unguarded and double-teamed Virginia's quickest man, Othell Wilson. The Cavaliers' first option was to inbound to Lamp, their best free-throw shooter. But as Lamp came to the baseline, Varner jumped between him and Raker. Wilson and Jones were jammed into the middle and Sampson, coming from midcourt, couldn't get close enough for a lob press.
"It was all jammed up in front of me," Raker said. "I knew it was too late to call time and I finally saw Othell get a little free and threw it to him.I thought I had it in, but it was close, I knew it was close."
Wirtz didn't hesitate this time, either, calling the five-second violation. Notre Dame had the ball and the Irish used their last timeout.
"We wanted to take the ball to the hoop and try to score," Phelps said. "If we missed, we wanted it alive on the glass for a few seconds to give us another shot at it."
The Irish got the shot they needed. Paxson inbounded to Woolridge on the baseline. The 6-foot-9 senior went behind the basket past Sampson and tried a reverse layup, using the basket to keep Sampson from blocking the shot. He missed badly, not even hitting the rim.
"It came out so hard I could just tip it," Sampson said. "I thought I had it but then I got hit and it popped back outside."
The ball popped out to Tripucka at the foul line. He tried to drive the lane but as he went up for the shot Wilson stripped him of the ball. It rolled loose and hit about a thousand hands before some leprechaun rolled it out to the right.
Woolridge beat everyone else to it, turned and, with four seconds showing on the clock, shot, falling away, off balance. The ball barely touched the net on its way through.
"When I shot it I just looked at the ref because I wasn't really sure if I had released it one time," Woolridge said."I didn't realize we had won until about 800 people jumped on me."
As far as the Cavaliers were concerned, Woolridge's shot hadn't ended the game. Jones ran toward referee Richard Weiler, screaming for a timeout. t"He acknowledged me and started towards the scorer's table," Jones said. "By the time he got there, the clock was on zero. I called time with two seconds left."
Virginia Coach Terry Holland said he had asked the officials why they couldn't put the two seconds back on the clock. "They said they didn't have the authority to do that," Holland said. "I've seen it done 1,000 other times in other places."
And so it was over. Sampson disgustedly hurled the ball high into the stands as screaming Irish fans swarmed onto the court. They had seen their team beat either the top-ranked team or the defending national champion for the eighth time in Phelps' 10 years as their coach and they meant to celebrate.
From the beginning, this was a game that seemed likely to have an unlikely finish. Phelps told his players all week that they were going to win, that they were meant to win. But he didn't just talk, he worked.
He devised a new defense in which Woolridge, 6-9 and 220 pounds, and either Tim Andree, (6-10, 230) or Joe Kleine (6-10, 240) sandwiched Sampson. Paxson played man to man on Lamp, who made but three of eight shots and scored only nine points, his season low. And Jackson took Raker (14 points, no rebounds) man to man. That left Tripucka to play the point, guarding Jones and either Craig Robinson or Wilson, one on two.
"I never worked that hard in my life," Tripucka said. "I felt like I was back on the playground, chasing the older kids. I must have lost 15 pounds out there today."
If Robinson, Wilson or Jones had been able to shoot well consistently, Phelps' defense would have failed. But they made only 10 of 24 shots and that allowed the Irish to pound Sampson and deny him the ball. He took only eight shots, hitting five.
"It wasn't anything that different from what people have done all year," Sampson said. "They just did it better."
The first half ended with Notre Dame leading, 30-28. But Virginia soon took a 40-35 edge on an excellent Sampson-to-Lamp-to-Raker three-point play and appeared in command when its lead grew to 49-43 on Jones' jumper with seven minutes left.
But Jackson's shot from the top of the key tied the game at 51 with five minutes left. Sampson made a short hook with two minutes left to put Virginia ahead, 55-53. Jackson missed and Jones, good on one foul shot, made it 56-53 before Paxson's free throws set up the finish.
"We won by refusing to let Sampson beat us with our defense, and by doing most of what we set out to do on the boards, going one on one on offense," Phelps said, tie askew, dripping sweat long after it was over.
Then he winked, and his voice dropped to a whisper.
"And," he said, "we won it with luck."
The Irish wouldn't have it any other way.