Every now and then, nearly always against terrific teams, Virginia's supporting players show basketball skeptics that while Ralphless they are not helpless. Teaching Boston College that lesson allows a sporting soap of sorts to reach a fitting conclusion here Saturday.
Virginia-North Carolina State has been popping up all over the continent this season: in Charlottesville, in Raleigh, in Atlanta and now at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains, for the championship of the NCAA West Regional.
It has taken some effort to look ahead to Saturday's 3 p.m. showdown, savoring Virginia's 95-92 victory over BC being so nice. The pace was upbeat, though rarely out of control, and Ralph Sampson playing less than half the game let athletic addicts and insomniacs watch what Terry Holland called "a lot of very good players doing a lot of very interesting things."
Even before the very best player (arguably) was called for his fourth foul 23 seconds into the second half Thursday, the very good ones were splendid. Odd-looking bodies belonging to Jay Murphy, Martin Clark and Michael Adams had BC giving the Cavaliers all they wanted.
There is a tendency to snicker when that trio trots onto the court; Murphy and Clark are skinny enough to be blown away by bad breath and Adams wouldn't even go eye-to-eye with Jimmy Carter. They can play. Inside and outside, these Eagles fly with the best.
The tone was established on the game's first plays, when a 6-8 contortionist who actually looks like he belongs on a court, John Garris, sent a wordless dare up to Sampson with a lob stuff and tip-in. So Sampson followed with 15 points and six rebounds the first half.
And three fouls.
Logically, BC concocted a play for the opening moments of the second half that would have Garris twisting inside, one on one, against Sampson. Coach Gary Williams was surprised when Sampson chose to go after Garris rather than concede an off-balance five-footer. He was aglow when Sampson clobbered Garris.
With nearly an entire half still to play, BC had accomplished a major goal: Sampson was walking dejectedly to the bench. When Garris sank both foul shots, BC had the lead.
There surely was going to be trouble ahead.
Who could have imagined that a team without the near-unanimous player of the year the last three seasons would spurt from being one point down to 11 ahead the next nine minutes?
Anyone who watched Virginia beat Houston three months ago.
Or at least read about it, the game having been played in Tokyo and starting at 4:45 a.m. Hooville time.
Ill, Sampson did not play that game; Virginia still won, by nine over a team ranked first in the country before the round-of-16 action this week.
"Sometimes, teams play better under adversity," Williams said.
And the team that has dealt that adversity lets down.
Both happened in varying degrees here. Such as Rick Carlisle, Ricky Stokes, Craig Robinson and Kenton Edelin got inspired; Garris saw shots that earlier had dropped cleanly through the net bounce once or twice and decide to stay out.
With 15 and 11, respectively, Robinson and Edelin had only one fewer rebound than the Eagles' three primary front court players. Stokes, who is even smaller than Adams, missed just once in a 12-point, five-assist performance. Carlisle had most of the critical points.
At times, Carlisle is the quietest player in the country. Your eyes are drawn to a Robinson and a Stokes. Somehow, you only appreciate Carlisle when the stat sheet is distributed and all of a sudden they pop out: seven for 13 from the field; eight for eight on free throws; five rebounds; zero turnovers against a wicked press.
Carlisle's shooting kept BC from gaining a sizable lead, and confidence, the first few minutes after Sampson was able to block only the view of those sitting behind him. When Sampson returned, 12 minutes later, and BC made one last run in the final moments Carlisle made six straight free throws.
"Sometimes you get greedy," Williams said of his first year as BC coach. "You come in (from American University) replacing a guy like Tom Davis and not knowing what might happen. Then you beat a St. John's, and a Georgetown. You do great in the league, win one in the NCAAs and you think you can beat a Virginia."
And kick yourself even harder after losing with Sampson playing just 19 minutes.
Comes N.C. State.
And a much less lively game.
Both teams Saturday might not score as many points as Virginia's 95 points against BC. In their three prior games, the winner has gotten at least 81 points. Those were with a 30-second clock and three-point play, neither of which are allowed in the NCAA tournament.
Two years ago, with nothing to prod the Wolfpack, the scores were 39-36 and 45-40. Virginia won each time.
"It'll be in the 20s tomorrow," State Coach Jim Valvano joked. "We're gonna work from 4 to 5:30 this afternoon, and not take a shot."
State is hampered by no three-point shot, because Dereck Whittenburg could throw 'em from Maui, but blessed by no clock. In a guards game, State seems to have the better guards.
In the ACC tournament, the Wolfpack won by three but had eight more three-point baskets. Also, a technical foul on Virginia assistant Jim Larranaga gave State four points. Of the two Virginia regular-season victories, Whittenburg either was suffering a broken foot or returning after 14 games.
Virginia seems the better team.
State has been luckier of late.