Sometimes, it's the other way around. Sometimes, grand moments take Ralph Sampson's breath away.

"Our 16-point lead had dropped to eight (Wednesday night at Duke), and they had the ball," Terry Holland recalled today. "I got 'em on the bench and yelled (sort of), 'What in the devil is going on?'

"Ralph says, 'I can't breathe.'

"So I said" -- here Holland showed his version of basketball CPR, gasping heavily -- "'Can I help?'"

Laughing, the Virginia coach continued:

"Then he just went out and dominated the rest of the game."

Among other skills, Sampson has learned to stay calm when the situation all but demands chaos. Literally, he practices breathing. At 7 feet 4, America's most heralded semiamateur giant is as human as the rest of us in many ways -- quaking before tests. Except that thousands sometimes pay millions to watch his.

"He's always found a way to cope (with pressure such as he will face against Georgetown and Patrick Ewing Saturday night at Capital Centre)," Holland said. "He's always nervous, but he always finds a way to turn it to his advantage.

"Ralph (as two-time national player of the year) has more to lose (than Ewing), but he has a way of responding in a positive way."

He is growing, in ways both obvious and subtle.

All of a sudden, seemingly from sunset to sunrise, muscles are popping out all over Sampson.As we noticed in midcareer of Sugar Ray Leonard, another extraordinary athlete who grew up in front of us, the prodigy has become a man. Comfortable, if not totally tolerant, with a spotlight that never clicks off.

"Coming in," Holland said, "I thought of him the way Bobby Knight did (when he coached Sampson on the 1979 U.S. Pan American team), as not quite ready for what was gonna hit him. All the physical things. I was really worried about his stamina, all he would go through night after night.

"He's been remarkably patient over the years, letting two guys crawl all over his back so teammates can work out problems. From where he came to where he is now is amazing. He's changed a lot. But he's remained much the same person; that's as important as the change.

"Despite the hoopla, he's maintained a real sense of where he is and what's important."

What's important? The day after Virginia lost to Alabama-Birming-ham in the NCAA Mideast Regional last season there was another variety of dunk, the throwing of the team manager into the motel swimming pool. As leader of the player parade assigned that task, Sampson was persistent and inventive.

"He (the manager) locked himself in his room," said Jeff Jones, the only major graduation loss from that 30-4 team. "I don't know how they did it, but they broke into that room. Took two hours, but they got him. Ralph and I kind of took it upon ourselves to keep the guys loose."

In the spring, shortly after the Atlantic Coast Conference decided to drastically alter its rules this season, Sampson joked, "I'll take the first three-point shot."

In the league opener, against Duke, he didn't.

After that 104-91 victory, point guard Othell Wilson was asked if Sampson could be that close to awesome every ACC game.

Yeah, probably, Wilson said.

You do know Ralph got 36 points, Othell?

"Yes," he said, smiling, "but he didn't try any three-pointers."

He won't against Ewing, because all field goals, from 50 inches to 50 feet, count two points. Sampson would not be expansive about Ewing; Holland would.

"The greatest danger," he offered, "is that both of them will play down (their match-up), avoid confrontations, wanting their teammates to know that this is a team game. Neither of them is interested in being the center of attention.They'll make big plays, but you're not going to see a human highlights film from either one. They just don't operate that way.

"I don't think either one will have a great advantage on the other, but one of them has to be better that night."

Big Ten Conference officials will be used, which ought to favor Georgetown's more physical style.

"Ordinarily, I'd like to see them call a tight game," Holland said.

But he's thinking past early December and Georgetown, all the way to late March and the NCAA playoffs.

"Those games usually are called fairly loose," Holland said, adding that the change from league play to the NCAA tournament has been troublesome. Nearly everything gets whistled in the ACC; nearly nothing does in the NCAA.

"Winning this game isn't important," Holland insisted. "Learning what it takes to win this type, of game is."

From one game to the next, Virginia will be going from racehorse to mulish basketball, from a 30-second clock and three-point shot to the game Dr. Naismith had in mind.

Holland was asked about Virginia's scoring 104 points and only throwing the ball away 11 times against Duke.

"When you don't hold it but eight seconds," he said, "it's hard to turn it over."

Holland tried to play down some of his team's obvious edge in experience.

"You can't go through anything bigger than what they've gone through," he said of the Hoyas advancing to the final seconds of the NCAA championship before losing to North Carolina last year.

But Georgetown will be playing three freshmen quite a lot.

"Their last big-game experience, the state high school tournament, is still fresh," he argued. "They figure this is the way it's supposed to be. Packed, large arenas. They'll learn later. So this actually is pretty good timing for them."