Although he was in half-trot flight toward a back door of the Omni, there was no escaping harsh reality. Jim Larranaga did not take a shot or throw a pass here; he cost Virginia the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball championship today.
"Didn't say a word to him," he pleaded over his shoulder. "Didn't say a word to him."
Then he shooed the four reporters on his heels away, slipped out the door and used an ambulance as a pick to flee to the streets. Whether the Cavalier assistant did or did not merit it, the technical foul Joe Forte called on him with 5:11 left in the title game gave North Carolina State at least four points in a game it won by three.
Although seemingly a laid-back and cerebral staff, Virginia coaches manage to allow their mouths to hurt the team at just the wrong times in important games. Technicals against Terry Holland, the head coach, were especially harmful in NCAA tournament losses in 1976 and last season. The one against Larranaga today was about as major a basketball sin as anyone ever commits.
This is to take nothing away from State. Its Washington connection of Sidney Lowe, Dereck Whittenburg and Thurl Bailey played grandly in their final ACC game. Lowe and Whittenburg offered evidence that clever little sharpshooters often are far more valuable than players whose heads scrape ceilings.
Each of the 6-footers played as well as 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson today. So did 6-11 Bailey. Once Whittenburg slipped into Ralphland and left the floor for a jumper. Sampson moved toward him, arms extended, ready to slap away the shot this impudent midget was about to let fly.
The ball sailed up; so did Ralph. Somehow, it kept on going, over a cloud and one or two space capsules. At the time it re-entered the earth's atmosphere and plopped into the basket, Whittenburg was bouncing on the floor.
"Tipped it a little bit," Sampson said.
He shook his head.
Sampson did that quite a lot in the dressing room after the 81-78 upset. Yes, he volunteered, Virginia lost more than State won. He pointed no fingers, though the obvious one would have been thrust toward the man who had left the dressing room long before anyone close to the team was inside: Larranaga.
"He normally works hard at maintaining his composure--and the other players'," Coach Terry Holland said. Indeed, Larranaga earlier had been seen dashing down the Cavalier bench to calm players excited about a controversial call.
With State ahead by 71-66, he lost control. Or so Forte judged. He whistled Larranaga after a Whittenburg-Othell Wilson jump ball was called.
"He said something like: 'That's not a jump ball,' " Holland said. "It wasn't: 'That ain't a damn jump ball.' It wasn't that attitude."
Well, Larranaga was a dozen or so seats from his own on the bench, and graduate assistant Jeff Jones grabbed him during the tantrum.
To further complicate matters, Virginia would have retained possession on a jump-ball call.
With the ball, Virginia might have scored. Instead, everybody marched to the other end of the court and Whittenburg sank both free throws. With the possession the technical fetched, Whittenburg threw in that orbital shot over Sampson.
So the judgment on Larranaga was that he cost Virginia a possible two points, gave State four and the near-minute of valuable time between Whittenburg's foul shots and basket. Every second was vital at that stage of the game.
Little wonder Larranaga lit out of the arena as quickly as possible.
In the final seven or so minutes, Sampson also disappeared.
"We couldn't get it inside, or whatever," he said. "That's a fact. If they can't get it to me, that's that."
It's also a fact that when Sampson flashed from a wing to a low-post position off a one-four Virginia offense and somebody did get the ball to him, Sampson missed twice. He also had the ball plucked away on a rebound by the relatively tiny Terry Gannon with 38 seconds left and the Cavaliers down three. Bailey then sank a free throw.
Sad as the loss was for the Cavaliers, it should not be regarded as too large a negative omen for the NCAA tournament.
"The year we lost in the ACC semis by 20 to Maryland," Holland said, "we got to the final four."
Also, there will be neither a three-point play nor shot clock in the NCAAs. This helps Virginia as much as it hurts State, which might be the best three-point team in the country.
"If we play NCAA rules today," Holland said, "we win. We're in good shape for the NCAAs. Yes. Most definitely."
Holland asked one favor:
"Don't care where we play," he said, "as long as it's not someplace where we'd have to play a home team (as they did last year, losing to Alabama-Birmingham in Birmingham)."
In the West Regional, Virginia could play Utah at Ogden. That's not nearly as terrifying as, say, Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, for the Cavaliers beat Utah by 23 points earlier this season at a neutral site: Tokyo.
"Can't get any farther away than that," Holland said.
He admitted that "the way we look at it right now" the Cavaliers cannot win the infamous Big One. They are 0-for-the-Ralph-era in the ACC tournament, advancing to the finals just twice.
"But we've had lots of big games this season," he added. "There's never been a bigger one than Georgetown (which Virginia won). Some we've handled well; some we haven't. By the time we'll be playing again, we'll be ready to go."