The end had come, and it hurt.
Ralph Sampson's final game as the most praised and pilloried collegian in a generation was one of his best. For pure numbers, he has done better. But in this final stretch for the NCAA championship he was close to brilliant. Animated; anxious to be heroic every moment on the court.
Sometimes, he has melted near the end of important games. Or seemed to. Today, he played taller than 7-feet-4 at times. Waved for the ball even in the final moments. That he couldn't get it one last time in the final 17 seconds was more because of North Carolina State's tenacity than Virginia's timidity.
Cavalier faithful are beside themselves. Surely, some sort of lob pass must have been possible to Sampson with a game, a career, on the line. It would have been fitting for Sampson to make the last Virginia effort, though not necessarily the best way to win this West regional championship.
A State under siege can stop anybody for several seconds. Even Sampson. It glues a 6-11 guy to one side, a 6-9 teammate to the other and has a couple of 6-6s also waving their arms nearby, in case an Othell Wilson gets too rash. If Sampson does get a pass, he gets clobbered. Immediately and hard.
State would rather have him on the free throw line under pressure, where where he averaged 65 percent for 132 games, than high above the masses for a short jumper. Either way, Wolfpack players were determined not to let Sampson alter that 63-62 lead his way.
For what it had available, Virginia got about as much as possible out of that last play: a good shooter (Tim Mullen) taking an open shot within his range. He missed, and the ball decided not to bounce toward Sampson with three seconds still left. If a Mullen coming off an injury hardly is what Virginians want at such a critical moment, he is all a bright, aggressive defense will allow.
That creates powerful frustration. A bellyfull boiled inside Sampson just after the final buzzer. So much (112 victories); so little (no ACC or NCAA titles).
Sampson is too much a gentleman to crawl out of sight and too emotional to simply walk away from such an ending. What he did was exactly right for the scene. As Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg were sweeping the floor with a half-court hug, while Coach Jim Valvano was punching air with his fists, Sampson grabbed a loose ball.
He squeezed it; then he soared into the air with it, went eye-high to the rim, pulled the ball back and then let loose with as ferocious a slam dunk as any in his life. Take that, life. Even if it doesn't count, I'm jammin' you. All of us would have done the same thing.
The ball having bounced about Ralph-high, the net still quivering, he turned and walked off the court.
A short time later, composed but uncomfortable, he appeared at a press conference. He talked, but said little.
"Going home right now."
Have there been any tougher losses?
"Been quite a few (actually, only 22 over four years, although every victory over Sampson all but made a team's season). This is the one that ended it. It's the toughest."
This was one of the few games Sampson failed to thrill us with some burst of athleticism tough for anyone a foot shorter. He was all substance today. He scored from extraordinary range for a man so tall; he once blocked a shot that started a fast break; he twice passed for easy baskets.
In a fit of arrogance early, Lowe tried to loft a lob over Sampson; he flicked it away, and Ricky Stokes soon was driving for a layup. For 33 minutes, he showed why Red Auerbach and lesser minds have been so eager to coax him into the NBA.
Sampson suffered more taunts.
"Choke . . . choke . . . this is your last game . . . good bye, Ralphie."
In the last several minutes of State's three-point victory for the ACC title, Sampson could scarcely be seen. When he did get the ball on a rebound, smallish Terry Gannon plucked it from him. If Sampson was much tighter today, he hid it well.
In one 90-second spurt starting with nine minutes left in the game, Sampson scored on a finger-roll over Lorenzo Charles (but missed the foul shot he also earned), turned Rick Carlisle's miss into a slam and made two free throws.
That gave the Cavaliers their biggest lead in 10 minutes; wonder soon sank into woe. Sampson later was called for steps and missed a free throw. He also scored the penultimate Virginia points.
"A great one," said Thurl Bailey, who has played--and matured--in Sampson's shadows. "You tend to alter your shots with him around, as I did the first half tonight. He intimidates."
Holland's early postgame thoughts were about Sampson the man rather than Sampson the player:
"When he came out of the game (against Boston College in the West semifinals Thursday) with four fouls and 19 minutes remaining, you got to see there is more to Ralph Sampson than just a basketball player. Most superstars, most people with that kind of pressure on them, would have gone to the bench and worried about themselves, worried about what was happening."
Sampson cheered his teammates instead of pouting.
"That's what Ralph Sampson has been to our basketball team," Holland said.
He's been thrilling, close to awesome and inspirational, grown more off the court than on it, often showed as much class as grace. Because of that, because he has given a good deal off the court, the game owes him something down the line: a trivial token called a championship.