Five minutes after the tipoff Wednesday night, James Worthy made the mistake that would best illustrate North Carolina's frustration against Virginia: he lowered the game to Othell Wilson's level.
With two long jump shots, Wilson had helped the Cavaliers to the sort of early domination the Heels usually affect, 8-2. But Carolina quickly fought back and had a fine chance for a fast-break layup that would cut the lead to two points.
Matt Doherty was ahead of all the Heels and Hoos when Worthy snatched a rebound out of the clouds and turned to find him. What he and Carolina discovered, to their game-long dismay, was little pest Wilson intruding once again, destined to decide this latest collision of ACC giants.
On a pogo stick, Wilson might pop to eyeball level with Worthy now and then. At 6-9, Worthy can change all the lightbulbs in University Hall flatfooted. At 6 feet, Wilson needs a ladder to dust a transom. So had all-America Worthy kept the ball high and flicked it long, the breakaway basket might have been telling for Carolina.
He didn't. Instinctively, Worthy brought the ball to about his waist, and Wilson wasted it, slapped it away, then quickly controlled it and tossed it into the Virginia basket. A four-point turnaround on two flips of Wilson's wrist. What should have been a 10-8 lead all of a sudden was 12-6.
Carolina got crushed in the rematch Wednesday night. A very good team was run over and flattened by a Virginia Van determined to go full throttle until it pulls out of New Orleans the morning of March 30 with the NCAA championship as a hood ornament.
That final-four journey still is a long one, although teams anxious to blow the Virginia Van off the road must be beside themselves with worry today. When Ralph Sampson and all those overachieving Othell Wilsons feed off one another's strengths, as they did against Carolina, college basketball starts to get unfair.
All the Cavaliers do on the court revolves around Sampson, perhaps getting ready to one day be acclaimed his sport's preeminent player. Only ordinary superhumans, Reggie Jacksons, boast of being the straw that stirs the drink. At Viginia, Sampson is the drink, the gin and the vermouth. Everybody else is the olive.
Only with a Sampson could a set-shooting grandmother in a rocking chair get open shots. Only with a Sampson would a school hustle about for a midget. Only with a Sampson would an Othell Wilson be encouraged to take off-balance jumpers in traffic. Only with a Sampson does a thrown brick create instead of destroy.
Even though he shot 80 percent from the field, had 12 rebounds and actually rendered a superior center, Sam Perkins, helpless at times, Wednesday was that rare game one could almost ignore Sampson. For a change, he was splendid because the Wilsons, Craig Robinsons and freshmen Tim Mullen and Jim Miller were exceptional. The olives got Carolina tipsy; Sampson knocked them out.
Because he scored 30 points in the earlier game in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels, no fools, dedicated themselves to keeping the ball from Sampson as long as possible. This required at least two and sometimes three players, Perkins from behind and a Jimmy Black, Doherty or Michael Jordan in front. The gamble was that the Cavalier spear carriers would miss their open shots.
They had at times in other important games.
They didn't Wednesday.
Wilson was especially wonderful. The shorthand of the play by play told his tale well: "Wilson 16 ft. right base line. . . Wilson 16 ft. left wing . . . Wilson steal 5 ft. in lane . . . Sampson slam from Wilson . . . Miller in lane from Wilson. . . Wilson top of key double pump . . .Miller follows Wilson."
The game flowed Virginia's way after that right base line jumper four seconds after the tip. Because Wilson made those shots, Carolina had to cover him. This left Sampson relatively free, and on one turnaround, close-in bank shot he made Perkins, who is 6-9, seem tiny.
In all, Wilson took four more shots than Sampson. Coach Terry Holland did not mind at all, for even Wilson's dumb-looking heaves served a purpose.
It's a way to get the ball to Sampson, if all else fails. Since he's half a head taller than anybody else, and jumps very well, Sampson is likely to grab any brick that clangs off the rim and score on a followup. Penetrate and pitch it up, Wilson is told, or slip the ball to Ralph when his man moves to block your shot.
"When I penetrate and shoot," said Wilson, "the big guy's in position for the rebound. I'll double pump, try to at least get it on the glass. You put it up, he'll get it."
Pleasantly, eight of his shots went in on their own.
Midgets were not quite what Holland had in mind after Sampson's freshman season, although he nearly tried to talk 5-10 Ricky Stokes into graduating from high school early to fill an important void.
"We needed quickness," Holland said. "Somebody to fill that role, though not necessarily as a starter. We needed a penetrator. We could not move the defense except by shooting over it. We had to have somebody who could move those big guys."
Stokes, who was not asked to accelerate his graduation, who in fact might not even know about the idea until now, has more than filled that part-time role of defensive disrupter. Wilson does it full-time.
"Once we found him (Wilson switched high schools, from Woodbridge to Gar-Field, his senior year), we recruited him hard," Holland said. "I think another reason some (top 20) schools overlooked him was because he'd been hurt and didn't play in summer leagues after his junior year."
Growing up to be small (in the ACC), Wilson had his fantasies. None ever included inventing ways to feed a 7-4 scoring machine.
"I did have dreams," he said. "Of playing in the ACC and in big games like these." In another month, the games will get even bigger. For all the fussing about the officiating, most of it by Carolina Coach Dean Smith, Wednesday merely was ACC sparring.