One play made it worth the money and the wait, one sequence of heavenly hoops at a level -- biologically and artistically -- almost no one reaches. Five minutes from the end of the game of our dreams at Capital Centre last night came the struggle we dared not imagine: Ralph versus Pat, back to back to back.
Most of what happened before and after, little fellows on either side determining Virginia's narrow victory over Georgetown as much as the giants, will be noted but not long remembered. Let's join Ralph Sampson and Pat Ewing low in the paint, the grand forces in semiamateur basketball exquisitely doing what each does best.
We learned some lessons off that. Sampson ain't shy. The only negative whisper about him was that he might be a bit delicate, too anxious to pop an unmolested jumper instead of slugging it out inside. He went three short rounds with Ewing, and won.
It all began with a miss by Rick Carlisle. Suddenly we had the classic matchup, offense versus defense, Wilt Chamberlain with finesse (Sampson) versus Bill Russell with a jump shot (Ewing).
Sampson grabbed the rebound and took it back up.
Ewing flicked it away.
Sampson controled the ball again.
Again Ewing blocked it, briefly pinning the ball against the glass.
Stratospheric stuffs. Two guys parting the clouds to go at each other; Sampson four inches taller, Ewing quicker. At the other end, Ewing had just slammed over Sampson.
Virginia Coach Terry Holland later said Sampson had a touch of the flu; Sampson also appeared for the opening tipoff with his left knee heavily taped. By the second half the tape had been cut off and all that remained for this wonderful collision was a band-aid.
They had exchanged a slap-shake before the tipoff, both energetic but neither looking the other in the eye for long. Sampson won the tip, but batted the ball to Georgetown. That set the tone: when the Cavaliers kept their wits against Georgetown's relentless defense, they were in control; when Gene Smith caused chaos, the Hoyas ripped to a tie.
But no more.
That's exactly what Ewing got out of Sampson in those three seconds or so of thrills -- a standoff twice and then trouble.
That third time Sampson controlled the rebound he shot up again and Ewing swatted the ball again. This time not so gracefully. This time a part of that muscled body nudged Sampson too hard.
Sampson whipped a fist into the air, a sort of slam-dunk gesture in celebration of mini-victory. Still excited, he ventured toward the Georgetown bench, where he was met by some taunts. Or what he perceived as such. The game was remarkably clean for the most part, players even patting each other on the rump after an especially nice play.
This time the juices were close to boiling. Something from a Hoya reached Sampson's ear; he twitched the index finger of his right hand. Come on, he was signaling. I'll take whatever you've got. At the other end of the court, Ewing was shaking the hand of the official who whistled the foul.
Sampson sank both foul shots.
The numbers reflected the battle: Ewing 16 points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots before fouling out near the end; Sampson 23 points, 16 rebounds and seven rejections. Ralph by unanimous decision; same with Virginia, 68-63.
If there is a rematch, and even non-junkies hope one comes about in the NCAA playoffs, don't bet against the Hoyas. By March, they will be coming on as strong as a team as most of their players were individually last night. The freshmen began playing as sophomores the last few minutes.
It took Georgetown 20-some minutes simply to relearn one of the basics: get the ball to the largest teammate closest to the basket. For nearly the entire first half, the freshmen guards were finding it nearly impossible to find Ewing.
He was there all along, flapping his hands in anticipation of passes that never came. In defense of such as Michael Jackson, Horace Broadnax and David Wingate, it was mighty tough traffic to penetrate; a Cavalier usually slipped in front of Ewing to deny a pass, while Sampson lurked behind.
But what an easy game it is when the center gets involved.
Smith and his Cavalier counterpart, Othell Wilson, were magnificent. Almost always, the trees get the pregame attraction and the bushes blossom brightest.
Tonight, the Hoyas put on a press rarely seen outside a laundry. Smith was sensational, causing steals, drawing charges, getting Wilson and the other Cavalier capable of driving in congestion, Ricky Stokes, in foul trouble. Tall and small, Virginia was good; in between, it was shaky.
Sampson also regained his wits after an early show of bravura. Even he is incapable of dominating a game from where he tried. In the first eight minutes, he tried what would be a three-point play in most conferences -- and missed -- a turnaround close to the free-throw line -- and missed -- and a hook outside his range -- and missed.
Virginia still led by three.
Virginia threatened a rout the first half; so tight was the Virginia defense, so cautious was Georgetown that there were as many television timeouts as Ewing points (5). Hoyas Coach John Thompson once bellowed for somebody to, pretty please, pass to Patrick.
Somebody did the second half.
Defense got Georgetown back in contention. Always has; always will.
Sampson was snappish after the game, giving the Hoyas and Ewing credit, though grudgingly. On the floor, when tiny Stokes fouled out, towering Ewing went to the Virginia bench to shake his hand. Then he went back to brilliance at hand.
Hope it happens once more