The Virginia men’s basketball team officially returns to the Final Four on Saturday for the first time in 35 years. The journey, much like the last time the Cavaliers were within two wins of a national title, has featured constant reminders of a crushing loss along the way.
During its march to Minneapolis, Tony Bennett’s squad quieted the doubters who questioned how Virginia would respond after becoming the first team lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament last year. Entering the 1983-84 season, skeptics wondered how the Cavaliers would remain competitive without legendary 7-foot-4 center Ralph Sampson, who was the No. 1 pick in the 1983 NBA draft.
Sampson helped lead Virginia to the Final Four as a sophomore in 1981. The Cavaliers were poised to return to that stage in 1983, but No. 6 seed North Carolina State stunned Sampson and top-seeded Virginia, 63-62, in the West Regional final. The Cavaliers seemed due for a regression.
“I’m dumb enough to think we’re gonna get to the Final Four next year,” Virginia Coach Terry Holland said after the loss.
Without Sampson, Virginia opened the 1983-84 season 10-0, but finished 17-11, leaving its NCAA tournament fate in doubt. In fact, after the Cavaliers’ 63-51 loss to Wake Forest in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, Holland called a friend on the NIT selection committee and requested that Virginia be assigned a road game. He figured his team would need some extra motivation to get up for the second-tier tournament.
Instead, the Cavaliers earned one of the NCAA tournament’s 24 at-large bids. As a No. 7 seed, they proved they were deserving, beating Iona by one point in the first round and knocking off Arkansas in overtime to advance to the Sweet 16. The Cavaliers defeated Syracuse, 63-55, in the regional semifinal to set up a showdown with Indiana for a spot in the Final Four.
Virginia guard Othell Wilson limited Indiana’s star freshman Steve Alford to six points and Jim Miller scored a game-high 19 to lead the Cavaliers to a 50-48 win at the Omni in Atlanta. “There is life after Ralph,” read a sign in the U-Va. cheering section.
“The hero was not Ralph Sampson, who is making millions playing professional basketball, but Kenton Edelin, who will be paying thousands to go to law school a year from now,” The Post’s John Feinstein wrote.
Edelin, a former walk-on from Alexandria, only scored five points, but they came at an opportune time. He gave Virginia the lead for good when he stole the ball from Indiana’s Dan Dakich and drove the length of the court for a layup with 1:27 remaining. A 46 percent free throw shooter, Edelin made three of four foul shots in the final seconds to help seal the win.
Olden Polynice added 12 points and six rebounds for Virginia, which shot 46 percent from the field.
“When the final horn sounded, when Indiana had tried and missed one final shot that might have forced overtime, Polynice did what thousands of Virginia fans must have felt like doing,” The Post’s Thomas Boswell wrote. “He collapsed. He fell to the floor at midcourt, put one arm over his head and pounded the hardwood with his other fist in delighted disbelief. Happy cheerleaders covered him like a fumble.”
As usual, Sampson’s name came up during the postgame news conference.
“Maybe coaches are dumb or too optimistic, but when Ralph graduated last year I felt bad for him because I knew he wouldn’t get to the Final Four again,” said the normally stoic Holland, who cried tears of joy after the win. “I didn’t feel bad for me because I thought we would have a chance this year.”
“All we’ve done this year is gone out and played,” Wilson said. “We never though that just because Ralph wasn’t here, we couldn’t win.”
At the Final Four in Seattle, Virginia students trolled Maryland with T-shirts that read “Where are the Terps?” Maryland was one of four ACC teams in the tournament that finished with a better conference record than Virginia but would be watching the Final Four from home.
In the semifinals, Virginia faced Hakeem Olajuwon-led Houston, which was upset by North Carolina State in the title game the previous year. The other semifinal featured Georgetown and Kentucky.
Virginia’s triangle-and-two defense helped limit Olajuwon to five shots. Despite shooting only 38 percent, the Cavaliers had a chance to win an ugly game in regulation after Olajuwon was called for traveling with 15 seconds remaining and the score tied at 43. Wilson’s pass was stolen on Virginia’s ensuing possession and Houston prevailed in overtime, 49-47, after the Cougars forced another turnover by Wilson with three seconds to play.
“All we wanted was a chance to win the game and we had it,” Wilson said after the game. “You know, everybody wrote us off, no one expected us to be here. I’m sure when we look back, we’ll be proud of what we accomplished getting here. But right now, after getting so close, all we can feel is disappointed.”
"You find yourself thinking, ‘We’ve won these before, we’ll win again,’ said Virginia senior guard Rick Carlisle, who missed 11 of 14 shots from the field. “But we got a lot of breaks to get this far. Today, the breaks just ran out for us.”
Georgetown defeated Houston in the championship for its first title. Virginia slumped to 17-16 and an eighth-place finish in the ACC the following season. Thirty-five years later, the Cavaliers are back in the Final Four.
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