For 40 minutes today, North Carolina and Virginia played a basketball game that left you panting for more. It is only January and in the grand scheme of things this Atlantic Coast Conference game meant little, but it doesn't get much better than this.
The Tar Heels, the No. 1-ranked team in the nation, finally won it, 65-60, but not before the No. 2 Cavaliers in general and Ralph Sampson in particular had practically scared them out of their baby blue sneakers.
Sampson was fabulous, throwing everything but Dean Smith's charcoal gray suit through the basket. He had 30 points, 19 rebounds and intimidated Carolina inside.
But it was what Sampson did not do that decided the game. He did not make two free throws with Virginia leading by one point with 4:01 left. He did not take the key shot of the game in the final minute with the Tar Heels up by one.
It took everything Carolina (11-0 overall, 2-0 in the ACC) had to hold off the 7-foot-4 all-America. If Sampson had gotten anything more than rudimentary help from his teammates, the Cavaliers (12-1, 1-1) would have won. Consider: Sampson was 13 of 23 from the floor, the rest of the team 11 of 32. Sampson had 19 rebounds, the rest of the Cavaliers 12. And he was the dominant defensive force.
"For 35 minutes we did what we had to do to win," Virginia Coach Terry Holland said. "For the last five minutes, they did what they had to do. We reacted at the end like a very young team, which is what we are."
For 33 minutes Virginia, despite the screams of 10,000 people, played its game. It did not have a turnover the first 12 minutes of the second half.
The Cavaliers had led, 32-28, at the half. They built the lead to 49-40 with 8:50 left and were still in command at 52-44 when Carolina's point guard, Jimmy Black, fouled out with 7:23 to play.
Black's departure brought on junior Jim Braddock. Smith had told Braddock earlier that he would not go in during the last 10 minutes unless Black fouled out.
"It helped me," Braddock said. "I knew I was playing the point the rest of the way whether I made a mistake or not."
But when Braddock entered, it looked like a dark day in sunny Chapel Hill. When Ricky Stokes stripped the ball from James Worthy (17 points, nine rebounds), Virginia came down with a chance to up the lead to 10.
Enter Matt Doherty. By his own description, Doherty is the Carolina starter with no defined role. "I'm just here to keep everybody else happy," he says. His statistics today were not overwhelming: three of eight from the floor, eight points, two rebounds, one assist.
But Doherty turned this game around. First, he gambled, running behind Jeff Jones and reaching for the ball. "A lot of times you do that and the ref will call a foul no matter what," Doherty said. "It was a gamble, but the time to gamble had come."
Doherty got all ball on this reach and it went to freshman Michael Jordan (16 points, seven rebounds). Jordan flipped the ball to Doherty for a layup. It was 52-46.
Virginia tried to answer with a quick pass to midcourt. Doherty, running back, tipped the ball off Stokes out of bounds. Carolina ball. Suddenly the crowd was screaming again.
Then Sam Perkins (12 points), dominated most of the day by Sampson, asserted himself with a 10-footer to make it 52-48 with 6:08 left. After Sampson's basket made it 54-48, Worthy made a free throw. Then Othell Wilson (six points, nine under his average) forced an ill-advised shot.
Braddock, open at the other end, never hesitated, putting in an 18-footer to make it 54-51. Braddock was two for two from the floor; Black had been two for eight. Down came Virginia. A pass to Tim Mullen at the foul line. Worthy jumped out, deflected it off Mullen's hand.
UNC ball. Again, the Tar Heels went inside to Worthy. He was fouled again and made both free throws. It was 54-53 with 4:22 left. Next came Sampson's crucial misses. Perkins rebounded. Again, the ball went to Worthy, posted on the left side. He turned and scored from 10 feet. It was 55-54, Carolina.
This time, triple-teamed, Sampson fed Wilson for a layup and the Cavaliers led again with three minutes left. But Jordan was fouled going to the basket. He made both foul shots and UNC was up, 57-56, with 2:32 left.
Smith had played Perkins or Worthy straight up on Sampson most of the day. Not now. Worthy was behind him, Doherty in front, Braddock to his left and Perkins waiting behind. Beat me from the outside, Smith was telling the Cavaliers.
Around the ball went, the Cavaliers looking for Sampson. "I knew they were all thinking Ralph would shoot," Worthy said. "The rest of them looked hesitant to take a shot."
Finally, Jones, Virginia's best outside shooter, went up from 18 feet. The shot went around and out. Jordan rebounded with 55 seconds left. The clock went to 33 seconds before Braddock, an 87 percent career foul shooter, was fouled. Holland tried a timeout to rattle him. It didn't work.
He made both shots. "I like being on the line in those situations," Braddock said. "I know I can shoot fouls."
That was the end. Sampson missed and Braddock made two more with 12 seconds left. Carolina had scored on each of its last 11 possessions, almost matching Virginia's scoring on its last 14 in its comeback here last year.
Some said that game belonged in a time capsule. If so, that capsule ought to be enlarged.