Al Wood's laugh is as unique as his jump shot.

"You can be in a room with hundreds of people and the lights all off, and if Al laughed, you'd know it," said North Carolina reserve Chris Brust. "It's more than just loud; it's piercing. And he's a wonderful dancer. Before a game like today's he'll start getting excited and he can't keep still. We've got music going movin' and hoppin' all around."

"You can be real down, like failed a test or something," said Dean Shaffer, "and if Al's nearby and laughing you feel good right away. He always does it just after we finish that (pregame) passing drill before layups. It gets us loose."

Nearly an hour after he kept them loose with his personality and then put them within one game of the NCAA championship with the most staggering bit of pressure shooting in memory, Wood was the only Tar Heel not movin' and hoppin' around the dressing room. A full-court press by the press finally had him cornered, and he wasn't minding at all.

With a Virginia hand in his face nearly every time he shot and Ralph Sampson a 7-foot-4 blanket he once twisted around for the sort of layup through possible only by Julius Erving. Wood scored more points in an NCAA semifinal than anyone else in tournament history. Jerry West's 38 points is now second best, by one.

The numbers are extraordinary, 14 for 19 from the field -- and no more than one or two uncontested layups -- and 11 for 13 from the foul line. Just so nobody will consider him a prima donna, Wood also grabbed more rebounds than anybody else, 10.

In their two most recent games, Virginia has tried every defense in the coaching manual and Wood still has scored 33 and 39 points.

"They even had Ricky Stokes on me once in Chapel Hill," said Wood, referring to the Cavalier shorty who can be an unexpected pest at times. Today, Virginia went through several players, assorted zones and a box and one; Wood still went over them.

"When Wood's lighting them up like that," said a Carolina official, "it doesn't matter what defense they're in."

"What makes it even more spectacular," said Notre Dame's Kelly Tripucka, a splendid forward himself, "is that he's almost strictly a jump shooter.He rarely drives. And when he posts low, it's almost the same thing: a couple dribbles and a jumper. He sort of tells you what he'll be doing, and yet he still gets it in the basket."

Tripucka was at midcourt, a few seconds after the 78-65 Carolina victory and a few feet from where his pal Wood was being interviewed on telvision. When Wood walked past Tripucka, he had handed him an ice pace and, as royalty would be a servant, said, "Hold this."

"Can't," Tripucka snapped. "My shoulder hurts."

He mimicked the left shoulder problems that have caused Wood to keep ice handy after most games this season. They both smiled. Perhaps to keep it a Carolina secret, Wood would not laugh. He was glad to talk about what dances through the mind of an exceptional shooter in a trance:

"When you're on a streak, the basket has a tendency to get bigger. I really believe that. And your eyes light up."

Every eye in the Spectrum and in front of millions of televisions about America lit up after Wood's midair dance and layup on Sampson in the final two minutes. Wood's must have been the size of radar discs.

"He got that look when he got the ball," Bill Guthridge, the assitant coach, said. "You knew something special was going to happen."

Pining on the pines, nearly at the end of the bench, Brust had the best view.

"Al drove and Ralph tried to get it," Brust said. "In the air, Al showed him the ball, then brought it down, coasted over the lane and threw it in off the glass."

It sounds so simple. It seems to require a sudden shot of helium, for Wood changed his mind while walking on air, floated at least a dozen feet and slipped the ball around and through a man with the longest wingspan in his sport.

What Wood had in mind was a dunk, a double-fisted slammer, a rare emotional binge.

"Everything was gong so well," he said. "I wanted the dunkl, but I hadn't seen Ralph. He came over like a bigclaw, and I really had no choice except the reverse. It just came out all right."

During that pregame movin' and hoppin', Wood sensed somthing good was about to happen.

"I knew I was gonna feel good," he said. "This was so important. Even if I felt bad I was gonna feel good. They do have a little advantage with Ralph. But Sam can handle him pretty good himself. And they really don't match up too well with (James) Worthy and me."

Wood has come so far the naive youngster from Gray, Ga., whose wardrobe rarely exceeded two pairs of pants and one coat. One of his unofficial visits to Maryland, after an all-star game, was at 2 a.m. Legend has it Lefty Driesell showed him the campus by flashlight. Wood said no.

"But it was the first time I'd seen anything like Cole Field House," he said. "My eyes were popping."

Wood was open and expansive about his performance, but kept insisting, "I don't like to talk about individual stuff. This is a team and when the team is playing well every individual gets attention."

With the game on the line, midway through the second half, when somebody brilliant could tip it beyound reach, Wood was at his best. His free throw gave Carolina a three-point lead with 13 minutes left. Then he scored 13 of the Heels' next 15 points, from just about every area on the floor, and Carolina was in control.

Wood will not go unnoticed Monday against Indiana. The tough Hoosiers are certain to at least nudge that touchy shoulder now and then.

"They've wasted a lot of people going through this tournament," Virginia muscleman Terry Gates said.

They know that the surest way to their second national title in five years, to keeping the fires for Indiana basketball glowing, is to chop Wood.