The omens favoring Virginia today were such that something bizarre like Ricky Stokes turning a blunder into the winning basket in overtime seemed almost destined. What else can one expect when all the Cavalier weak links are steel strong, when the jolly, fleshy fellow mostly responsible for getting Ralph Sampson battle hardened gets three points out of a shot that would send most coaches to the ceiling in anger?
So we'll intrude on Dan Merrifield before getting to Stokes, whose final-second shot kept up a family tradition of heroics in important Atlantic Coast Conference tournament games. The giant called Orca, after the movie whale, thought that 15-foot bank shot--coming with the Cavaliers in what seemed a deep stall late in the first half--was a good shot.
And hot-fudge sundaes are good for a diet.
"Everybody else was being guarded," he offered. That was true enough, and so was what he added: "No one thought I'd shoot."
With a two-point lead and some other reserves joining freshman Merrifield in this ACC semifinal, Virginia stalled more than two minutes off the clock. They were so passive that most everyone figured all but the last few of the remaining 64 seconds also would go shotless.
All of a sudden Orca was in the air, the ball cocked in his right hand and his eye on the rim. He has a Wes Unseld build, with enough bulk to let us know he's wintered well and that one of his ambitions--to own a steak and lobster house--is well founded.
There he was, in the air. Somehow.
Orca was loose.
Sampson calls him that, and when he went up there, Wake must have thought it had Virginia beached. Two minutes and more than a dozen passes and a guy who actually looks like a brick layer lets one fly.
"I thought it was a good move for me in the situation," he insisted.
Correctly, it developed.
Merrifield drew a crowd, a hand in his face and a bump at release. Bang! The brick hit the glass--and clanged into the basket. On the free-throw line before shooting the foul shot, he tried to squelch a grin, to keep an air of professional calm, as though he does this sort of thing under pressure all the time.
Orca had averaged 1.6 points in 19 previous games.
When that foul shot rattled in, Orca had nearly doubled his production in a few seconds. It was as significant a moment as any all game, and Coach Terry Holland went and interrupted Merrifield's spree by shortly sending in a sub: Sampson.
"I play 10-12 minutes when we're winning big," Merrifield said. "Three to four otherwise. In practice, I'm one of the two or three guys who play the opponents around Ralph. I'm supposed to bump him, like he'll get in a game. He gets physical back, but not mad."
Merrifield and the other Cavaliers who play in Sampson's shadow were terrific today. They had to be, because their second most valuable player, point guard Othell Wilson, was sidelined with a thigh bruise.
The first omen was bad: freshman Jim Miller missed an open layup off an inbounds pass on the first shot of the game. It was about the last time a young Cavalier made an obvious error. Miller quickly recovered from another miss and made half his shots the rest of the game; another freshman, Tim Mullen, was five for seven from the field.
And little Stokes hit the shot, in additon to being his usual pesty self on defense. It's a way of life for Stokeses at Virginia, as long-time fans of Maryland and North Carolina recall with a tinge of frustration.
When the Cavaliers last won the ACC tournament, in Capital Centre in 1976, a squirt named Bobby Stokes was all over the court, stealing the ball when the Terrapins and Tar Heels wanted it desperately and making every free throw in the final minutes.
"I've never done anything like make a winning basket," Ricky Stokes said of that 12-foot bank shot at the end of overtime today. A small man with a large smile, Stokes admitted he and the coaches wanted somebody else to shoot in that situation.
Sampson was the first option, of course. As they did most of the game, the Deacons denied him everything but breath. Another option was the long-range man, Mullen. Still another was Craig Robinson down low. Nobody, apparently, wanted Stokes firing with the game in the balance.
As ordered, Stokes tried to force a pass to Robinson. One Wake player, Anthony Teachey, flew at Stokes and the ball; another, Guy Morgan, appeared to swat the ball away form Robinson.
Wonderful for Wake.
This happens to Wake a lot in the tournament. One year it lost to Carolina when an official--and few others--noticed a long pass hit the overhanging scoreboard before ending in the hands of a Deacon. So an apparent winning basket was nullified, and Carolina later won.
Now Morgan's marvelous hustle ended with the ball in Stokes's hands, with no Deacon even close.
"I was kinda surprised no one put pressure on (the rest of) us," he said.
With his mental clock winding down, and the sellout crowd going bonkers, all he could do was sight and shoot. The ball banked cleanly home.
"The closest thing to something like this," Stokes said, "was that steal against BYU."
In the season opener, with Virginia down a point, Stokes made a late steal that ended in a three-point play by Jeff Jones that won the game. Today, the tiniest player in the ACC played tall again. It figured.