If there is a better forward in the nation than North Carolina's Al Wood, let him speak now.
The 6-foot-6 all-America, who said he was anxious to atone for his team's two regular-season losses to Virginia, did that and more today. He scored 25 of his career-hig and NCAA tournament semifinal-record 39 points in the second half to give the Tar Heels a stunning, 78-65 triumph over the Cavaliers at the Spectrum.
Carolina (29-7) will play Indiana for the national title Monday at 8:15 p.m. Virginia (28-4) and LSU (31-4) will meet for third place at 5:15. In a regular season game at Chapel Hill in December, Carolina defeated Indiana, 65-56.
Wood, who slightly separated his left shoulder late in this game, but returned to play again, had plenty of help. Sam Perkins, in addition to keying the tight zone that held Virginia's 7-4 Ralph Sampson to 11 points and nine rebounds, scored 11 points and had nine rebounds, Jimmy Black had 10 points and played an excellent game at point guard and James Worthy and Matt Doherty each had eight points.
Virgina's Jeff Lamp scored 18, Lee Raker 13 and Jeff Jones 11.
This contest didn't have the electricity of the last Virginia-Carolina 80-79 overtime thriller, but Wood sent shock waves through the Cavaliers in the second half. Lamp and a box-and-one defense had kept him from scoring in the first five minutes of that half, but Virginia wasn't able to control the other Tar Heels and had to switch to man to man.
Wood then took over. He made nine of 10 shots and seven of nine free throws after intermission, 13 of the points coming in a row to help the Tar Heels increase a two-point lead to an eight-point margin, 52-44, with 8:30 to play.
"When he sank all those points, it took us right out of the ball game," said Othell Wilson, one of the Cavaliers burned by Wood. "Then we had to play catch-up."
Virginia overcame big margins to whip the Tar Heels in the two regular season games, but those were history and this was the national semifinals. Wood was determined that Cavalier lightening would not strike the Carolina Blue three times.
"Once, when we were 11 up and they cut it to six, I had flashbacks," said Wood, who also had 10 rebounds. "We just had to play harder. I don't think I dominated the game. It just so happened they had a shorter guy on me. If a 6-3 guy is on me, I just post up or take him to the basket. They had Wilson and (Jeff) Jones on me some after that box. I didn't mind the box because I could have just gone to the sideline and let the guys play four on four. With our lineup, they couldn't match up. We too advantage of it."
Perkins and his eager-to-help teammates long ago had taken Sampson out of the game. He got only six shots after intermission, four coming when the game was about over. At times, the frustrated Sampson didn't jump for rebounds or attempt to stop the Carolina shooters from getting into the lane.
"Their front line packed in tight, much different than the last time we played them," Sampson said. "They used the same zone but different guys."
North Carolina Coach Dean Smith, who has gotten to the final four six times now, but never has won, said the defense against Sampson was the key factor in the victory.
"We didn't want Sampson to beat us," Smith said. "We thought he'd get a little frustrated and want to go outside and get the ball. You've got to give Perkins credit. He stayed behind him and there was a lot of physical play between them. Terry (Holland, the Virginia coach) made a good move by putting Lamp in the corner to make Worthy come out."
Smith countered Holland's move by replacing 6-2 Mike Pepper with the 6-8 Doherty, who sagged back to front Sampson. At times, no fewer than four blue uniforms were surrounding Virginia's big man.
After Wood's 13th straight point, Carolina went to a semidelay. If that strategy had failed, Smith said, his critics would have set the world record for second-guessing mail.
The stall that failed so miserably in the season's first two games between the teams worked well today. Virginia was forced to foul and Carolina put the game away at the free-throw line.
Foul shots by Black and Doherty and Wood's two straight layups, the second a twisting reverse under Sampson, gave Carolina a 74-60 lead with 1:02 remaining.
Virginia must have known its chances of winning its first national championship were over when Lamp somehow sank a free throw he tried to miss. The Cavaliers never quit hustling, scoring seven consecutive points, the last two on Sampson's lone dunk of the game, to close to 74-65 with 19 seconds to play.
Lamp fouled out chasing Wood and the Tar Heel senior closed out a magnificent afternoon with two shots from the line.
Both teams appeared tentative in the first 10 minutes. Wilson's three jump shots finally got Virginia going while Wood, running to the weak side of the Cavalier zone, sifted through the defense for five baskets, the last one pulling the patient Tar Heels to 15-13 with 9:16 left in the first half.
Sampson took a breather and the 6-9 Worthy took over inside. He rolled in a layup and made a 12-footer before Wood's two free throws gave Carolina a 20-19 lead with 3:52 to play.
Both teams worked for good shots for the remainder of the half. As it was winding down, Wood scored on a running 10-footer to put Carolina two up. But Jeff Jones's shot from 30 feet out tied the score at 27.
Carolina came out in a rush the next half. Two baskets from Black and a three-point play from Perkins put their team ahead, 34-30.
The Cavaliers, who rallied to beat Villanova and Tennessee in earlier tourney games, fought back to tie at 37 on Raker's three-point play with 13:02 left.
But that was it for the Cavaliers. Black's 18-footer made it 39-37 before Wood turned this game into his private show.
"We tried everything to stop him except throwing the kitchen sink at him," Holland said. "Nothing seemed to work. We couldn't generate any offense in the second half. That's the reason we went to man to man, to try to get something started. Nothing seemed to work. We played an exceptional team having a good day and a great player."