The room was cluttered with an odd assortment of useful tools, brooms and such, and the steadiest point guard of any team going to the final four. Sidney Lowe was stunned, not by what North Carolina State had done to the University of Ralph moments before, but that a former junior-high principal he had not seen in eight years had somehow managed to contact him by phone.
Lowe was still in uniform and sitting on a desk; one of the nets was draped about his head, and he interrupted Mr. Grays just long enough to accept congratulations from Virginia Coach Terry Holland. Had they glanced around during a brief handshake--and been in a mood for reflection--both would have been moved by a nearby sign:
"How much better it would be if we let opportunity do the knocking."
Lowe and his other Washington-area buddies at State, Dereck Whittenburg and Thurl Bailey, surely wondered at times during their four years if they could ever slip by the massive forces of North Carolina and Virginia for a chance at the NCAA title.
With their last chance, they could.
"They been telling us 'NIT, NIT, NIT,' " Whittenburg yelled in Lowe's ear as they rolled in each other's arms on the floor near midcourt after two last-second Virginia shots failed. "Now it's final four, final four."
Virginia has been knocking at glory--and been knocked for not quite getting enough--since Ralph Sampson turned down The Factories for The Lawn. Each of his four years seemed to end with a variation of the final chapter here in the NCAA West Regional finals Saturday.
"I thought his best opportunity (to win an Atlantic Coast or NCAA championship, or both) was his freshman season," Whittenburg volunteered. "They also had (Jeff) Lamp and (Lee) Raker."
That team lost in the first round of the ACC tournament, then won the highly diluted NIT. Then the Cavaliers lost to North Carolina in the NCAA semifinal the next year and in the ACC final the next; it lost to Alabama-Birmingham last year in the NCAA Mideast semis, and to the Wolfpack in the ACC final and NCAAs this season.
Some sad twist of fate always intruded, as well as lots of opportunities to rant at Holland, who during the Sampson years won more games (112) than any college coach.
Othell Wilson was hurt and did not play against UAB; Whittenburg delivered from longer range than Federal Express Saturday.
"I felt my rhythm," Whittenburg said after nearly all his 11 field goals came from close to NBA three-point territory. "I'd come off a pick, and just know it was going in. Wouldn't see anything but the rim. Not a hand in my face. Nothing. When I saw that line (the three-point line used for non-NCAA tournament games), I got kinda happy. I felt good."
Smiling, Coach Jim Valvano interrupted.
"Don't you like the discipline of my kids?" he said. "They always set up for the good shot."
If State manages to win the NCAA prize, it will be largely on strategy close to unique. Basketball games are not supposed to be won on shots from the moon. But then Virginia beat State twice this season and two other final four teams, Louisville and Houston, once each. So logic won't make this final four, either.
Each ACC tournament or season-ending loss has posed large questions. As Whittenburg wondered, why couldn't the first Sampson team have done better? Why couldn't the second one have found a way to keep Al Wood under 39 points in the NCAA semifinals? Why couldn't the last two get the ball to Sampson during the critical moments against UAB and State?
Most of the questions have reasonable answers; fans who underwrite athletic departments, and bettors who lose, often won't settle for reason.
For instance, why would Holland yank Sampson with 3:41 left in the first half Saturday and he and the Cavaliers on a run that produced a 31-21 lead? Even 7-4 guys get tuckered, and that was as good a time as any for Sampson to rest.
"I got pretty fatigued," said State's 6-11 Thurl Bailey. "He had to come out a couple of times. When you have to go from basket to basket full speed in altitude, you get tired."
Still, State's four best players each had more minutes than Sampson's 33. For Virginia, Craig Robinson, Wilson and Rick Carlisle also were on the court slightly longer than Sampson.
At the end, Virginia was in desperate need of the most available commodity in America: a player who could hit an open jump shot from just beyond the free-throw line. It was reduced to a very good shooter, Tim Mullen, coming off an injury. He had only taken two shots in the previous two games, and played just six minutes before jumping off the bench again for the possible game winner.
"We wanted to make sure Othell couldn't create," Valvano said of that final 17 seconds after State took a 63-62 lead on two foul shots by Lorenzo Charles. "We also were gonna clamp Ralph. Let 'em throw it up. What else would we do? If we were gonna lose, we wanted it to be on a jumper."
That's what State got.
Opportunity knocks once more.