Virginia Coach Terry Holland picked the wrong time to lose his temper tonight. His unnecessary tantrum late in the second half handed away two crucial points and triggered the third-ranked Cavaliers' stunning tumble out of the NCAA basketball playoffs.
Alabama-Birmingham's 68-66 victory sent the Blazers (25-5) into the Mideast Regional final against Louisville at 12:40 p.m. Saturday. The winner will play the West Regional champion in the national semifinals March 27 in New Orleans.
Louisville had an easier time getting through its semifinal. Good second-half shooting by Derek Smith and Lancaster Gordon and an effective full-court press helped the Cardinals outrun Big Ten champion Minnesota, 67-61, eliminating the league's final team from the tournament. Thus, the Mideast's top two seeds lost tonight.
Top-seeded Virginia, playing without guard Othell Wilson except for a brief first-half appearance, was having trouble enough handling UAB's streak shooting, the screaming partisan crowd and its own poor free-throw shooting (10 of 17). The Cavaliers, however, just couldn't offset Holland's sprint to midcourt that displeased referee Booker Turner enough to call a technical.
Holland was screaming that a foul should have been called during a spirited scramble for a rebound under the Cavaliers' basket. His team had just fallen behind, 55-52, on a three-point play by Donnie Speer and now UAB had possession again. The Blazers threw the ball away just as Turner blew his whistle.
While Holland protested further, UAB guard Oliver Robinson, who scored 17 of his 23 points in the second half, made both free throws for a five-point lead with 6:54 left. Despite six points by Jeff Jones in the final 35 seconds, Virginia never could get closer than one the rest of the way. The Cavaliers trailed, 63-56, with less than a minute to play and never had possession with a chance at tying the game.
"I thought it was an offensive foul (under the basket)," Holland said. "I called out, 'Come on, you have got to call them at both ends,' and the guy (Turner) coming up the rear called the technical.
"Was it crucial? Well, look at the final score. But there were a lot of crucial calls out there."
Virginia (30-4) was playing a team in just its fourth year of basketball on any level. But even with center Ralph Sampson turning in a magnificent performance (19 points, 21 rebounds), the Cavaliers were denied a second straight trip to the final four, ending a season in which they were ranked No. 1 for a time.
The inability of Wilson to play for more than four minutes on his sore right thigh cut deeply into Virginia's quickness and depth. Nevertheless, the Cavaliers appeared on the verge of pulling away early in the second half when they scrambled to a 48-43 lead. But UAB ran off a 9-4 streak for a 52-52 tie shortly before Holland's run-in with the officials.
Virginia held a 44-28 rebounding advantage over its undersized opponent, which used three guards much of the night. But with Jones not feeling well and sitting out seven minutes, the Cavaliers' ball handling suffered. They committed more turnovers (l8-12) and were inconsistent in getting the ball to Sampson, who went long stretches without getting into the offense.
Part of the problem was Holland's decision to move Sampson outside to a wing position during parts of the game. Holland said he was attempting "to give them a different look." Blazer Coach Gene Bartow, admitting he was surprised to see the 7-foot-4 junior standing 25 feet from the basket, didn't complain a bit.
"There is no doubt the home crowd also was a factor," said Bartow, who is one game away from taking his third team, all at different schools, into the final four. (He also coached Memphis State and UCLA to the final four.) UAB has won 12 straight, including back-to-back victories over Indiana and Virginia. In the process, he has transformed this football-happy town into basketball fanatics, at least temporarily.
The Cavaliers have been living precariously for more than a month, mostly because of slowdown games. This time, they were involved in a fast-paced game from the opening tap, but they couldn't offset UAB's quickness and outside shooting.
And they couldn't make the inexperienced Blazers choke in the stretch.
Once Bartow saw his team go up by five, he went to a weave stall with almost six minutes to go. Virginia caused a turnover early to close to 57-56, but then muffed chances to pull even when first Tim Mullen and then Jim Miller, both freshmen, committed turnovers.
The Blazers also kept making the majority of their foul shots, hitting 10 of their final 12 attempts. Jones would make a basket, Virginia would call time and then foul immediately. Although that approach caused Bartow some anxious moments, it wasn't enough.
The most important foul shots were made by guards Robinson and Luellen Foster. With UAB up, 64-62, with 25 seconds to go, Foster made both free throws in a one-and-one situation. Then, after Jones made a 12-foot jumper with 18 seconds remaining, UAB was forced to call time five seconds later.
Jones then fouled Robinson, who methodically put in his one-and-one attempts. Sampson made a dunk just before the buzzer.
"I had mixed emotions about going to the delay," Bartow said. "I like to do it with two or three minutes left, but Ralph was very much on my mind. He changes the game a little. We didn't get into it very good, but I had made my commitment and I decided to live or die with it."