"Your basic stepback, fade-away, 20-foot prayer," Orlando Woolridge was saying. And laughing. And hugging everyone in sight. And soaking in the irony. Woolridge is the tallest encyclopedia of Notre Dame basketball, able to rattle off which Irish hero sank the winning basket to slay what legendary team in the season's game for the ages.

The latest one will face him in the mirror.

"About 20 feet, maybe 18," he said of the shot that beat either No. 1 or 1A Virginia today in America's fanciest leaky gym. "But by the time my grandkids hear me tell it, I'll be at least 35 feet away, about out of bounds when I shoot it, landing in the front row.

"As a kid, you fool around with shots like that in the back yard. But you never think something like that'll happen in a game. And especially to win a game like this."

The Irish have come to expect an annual ambush of somebody special, to the point where Coach Digger Phelps concocts themes.For this one, against a team that had not lost 28 games, his week-long sermon was: "nobody's born to go undeafed."

Phelps gets weepy-eyed when he talks of games such as this, calling Notre Dame "the greatest underdog institution ever" and conveniently forgetting he has more high-school all-Americas on the bench each season than many teams recruit in five years.

His satisfaction after today is no blarney, for Phelps realizes all too well it takes uncommon talent, uncommon preparation and uncommon luck to beat the University of Ralph. That the man whose main mission today was to keep Ralph Sampson from touching the ball should win the game with an 18-footer after missing a layup gives the game its proper tone.

"I wasn't thinking offense at all most of the game," Woolridge said. "I was trying to deny the ball to Ralph. Any way I could. To be honest, I almost idolize him. To do what he did against Ohio State (40 points and 16 rebounds) was unreal. It was a challenge today."

It was a challenge Woolridge did not face alone. While he, at 6-foot-9, skipped in front of the 7-4 Sampson either of two Irish Clydesdales, Tim Andree or Joe Kleine, stayed glued to Sampson's back.

That way, not even Houdini could get the ball to Sampson regularly.

Literally, Woolridge made his presence felt.

"I tried to bump him now and then, get him off rhythm. I don't like to play that way, but he's so powerful. I tried to stay in his face, get him frustrated. I knew I was getting to him when he shook away once the first half and took a shot outside his range.

"Any time and any way I could get on him, I did. I'd make sure he knew I was around. I didn't talk much to him. But after timeouts, I'd go right up to him. And I followed him almost all the way to the locker room at halftime. I even tapped him on the butt, so he's look back and see me.

"I tried to intimidate him. I don't know if it worked. What I do know is that he intimidated me on that (layup) shot before I got the winner."

Phelps is man enough to admit that his best-laid plans in fact did not entirely work, that Virginia hit just enough outside shots to muster a four-point lead with more than six minutes left. That meant the Irish had to play honest defense on Sampson, one on one.

And still won.

Two of the three times Notre Dame trusted Woolridge or Andree alone, Sampson scored. But once Sampson was forced into solo defense against Woolridge -- and Woolridge drove past him and earned a foul.

"I don't believe in the Notre Dame mysitque," said Jeff Lamp, "but I do believe in Orlando Woolridge's quickness."

The implication there is that in victory the Irish leaned a lesson, in case the teams meet again in the NCAA playoffs. They already know Sampson can whip any Irish defender, one on one; today they discovered that Sampson just might not be able to handle Woolridge without help.

With quickness and a decent jump shot, Woolridge is that rare player capable of forcing Sampson away from the basket. And with the Cavaliers' best team their shortest, that tactic would give Notre Dame a decided advantage on offensive rebounding.

"I'm not sure he could handle me alone," said Woolridge, not being cocky but seemingly glad somebody asked. "I could being him out -- and then go around him."

For all the mental gyrations from Virginia Coach Terry Holland and Phelps, all their grand strategies, this affair was decided by which team had the superior outside shooters. Who could make the basic playground shot, the open 15-footer?

Holland eventually sense he needed a little shooter (Othell Wilson) more than he needed a rebounder (Craig Robingson or Terry Gates). And the Irish have a stable of sharpshooters, Tracy Jacksons, Kelly Tripuckas and John Paxsons who can make a zone defense helpless.

"Virginia's the best outside shooting team I've ever seen," said Woolridge. He must have meant on film, for Jeff Lamp and Jeff Jones each was three for eight from the field. f

And Phelps, outwardly soaked and inwardly drained, was ever so grateful that his worst outside shooter had Irish eyes when he needed them today. How can a man miss a tough layup one second and and swish a tougher 18-footer almost the next? Put him in a Notre Dame uniform, on national television, with the game on the line and against a team everyone will remember longer than Notre Dame's.

Before the game, a man paraded around the court with a shirt that read: "Ralph Eats Leprechauns." Not today. Not an hour from South Bend.