Ralph Sampson spent much of the final game of his college career watching rainbows. Missing again was the pot of gold he'd been seeking for four years. These rainbows arced from the uncannily accurate right arm of Guard Dereck Whittenburg as North Carolina State beat Virginia 63-62 in the final of the West Regional in Ogden. Utah. Perhaps someday it won't seem so important, after Sampson has earned a zillion dollars or won a few MVP trophies in the NBA. But the fact remains: One of the best big men ever to play the game went out without an NCAA championship ring.
"This is probably the toughest loss," said Sampson in a brief appearance at the postgame press conference, "because it's the last." And then he was gone.
Albuquerque should love this N.C. State road show, which is fueled by momentum—the Wolfpack is 24-10 and has won its last eight games—and. magic: Five of those eight wins were by a total of eight points.
State had perhaps the easiest path to the regional finals, drawing Pepperdine and UNLV in the opening rounds and Utah, which it manhandled 75-56, in the semifinal. Even Virginia wasn't a bad draw for the Wolfpack. The Pack had beaten the Cavaliers 81-78 in the ACC tournament final two weeks before, a twist of fortune that sent Virginia westward toward another encounter with State. Had the Cavaliers won the ACC tournament, which they never did during the Sampson era, they would have been the top seed in the East.
The Cavs led by as many as 10 points in the first half and still appeared to be in control with about five minutes left and the score 58-53. But three State baskets, the last a turnaround six-footer by sophomore Lorenzo Charles—next to Whittenburg. State's most valuable player in the tournament—evened it up at 59-59 with 3:49 left.
If Virginia was the pregame choice, the Pack had to be the favorite with the score tied in the stretch. Cavalier Coach Terry Holland has never been known as an X's and O's man, while N.C. State Coach Jim Valvano is considered a street-smart guy who rarely loses his cool in the clutch. Virginia has won 112 games during Sampson's time there, but it has also lost some big ones. Bad rap or not, by reputation Virginia gags in such circumstances, while the Wolfpack has tended to come through.
First, Virginia's Rick Carlisle, an 85% foul shooter, missed the first free throw of a one-and-one. A 72.3% foul-shooting team during the regular season and the ACC tournament, the Cavaliers would wind up at only 59.7 for their three tournament games and a paltry 55% in the last 7½ minutes of those games. Virginia's Craig Robinson then got the ball on a steal at midcourt and Carlisle alleyooped it to Sampson for a stuff at 1:47 to give Virginia a 61-59 lead. It was Sampson's last basket as a collegian, bringing his career point total to 2,228.
Ignoring the hand of the 6'5" Carlisle in his face, the 6'1" Whittenburg stuck in a long jumper to tie matters at 61-61 with 1:26 left. He finished with 24 points, following a 27-point night against Utah, and the tournament MVP award. Valvano may indeed be good at the blackboard, but probably his best asset is the freedom he allows his players. "If you can go by somebody and you go between your legs with the dribble to do it, it doesn't matter to the coach," says Whittenburg. "He lets us play." Thus does a freelance player like Whittenburg, who missed 14 games this season with a broken foot, develop confidence in the clutch.
Which is exactly what had been lacking in Cavalier Guard Othell Wilson. His poor free-throw shooting almost caused Virginia's demise in a second-round game against Washington State, and though he had played much better in the Cavs' 95-92 win over Boston College in the regional semifinal, he was still just eight of 18 from the field and two of five from the line. He had nine assists against N.C. State but scored only seven points.
Whittenburg chose Wilson to foul with 54 seconds to go. Wilson made the first of the one-and-one but he missed the second, and Virginia led 62-61. But this was Whittenburg's day. Despite his outside shooting ability, crowding him is no defensive remedy because he's an excellent penetrator. Sure enough, Whittenburg slipped in, headed down the lane and dumped it off to Charles, who went up for the shot as Sampson came off Thurl Bailey to help. Charles's shot was just short, but Sampson was whistled for a foul as he fell to the court. As Sampson lay there, pounding the floor in frustration, the most agonizing 23 seconds of his career were about to begin.
Virginia called time-out to allow Charles, who is a 67% free-throw shooter, to think about the importance of his shots. As Charles marched to the bench, he said in a determined voice to Whittenburg and Point Guard Sidney Lowe, "I'm going to make these." Make them he did, and North Carolina State led 63-62, its first advantage since the 12:44 mark in the first half.
Virginia called time-out with 17 seconds left and Holland put sophomore Tim Mullen in the lineup. Mullen, who had been coming back slowly after suffering a knee injury in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, had played only four minutes against BC and only six minutes against State, all in the first half and without attempting a shot.
Virginia's first option was simply for Wilson to penetrate and create some kind of scoring opportunity for himself. But Whittenburg, with help from Lowe, hounded Wilson and forced him to waste precious seconds dribbling on the perimeter before he finally had to junk that option.
The second option, almost too obvious to mention, called for Wilson to get it to Sampson. "I went down low on the right side," said Sampson, "and everybody came with me." Was there any way to get it inside? "No way at all," he said. No way to get it to a 7'4" guy who can get off the ground pretty well?
But it was Mullen who broke free with about eight seconds left and took the pass from Wilson. He hesitated and then went up for a shot from some 20 feet. Mullen's shot hit the back of the rim and bounced back high in the middle of the lane. Wilson snaked in to grab the rebound about six feet from the basket, but his shot fell two feet short, nearly an impossibility.
Wolfpack Center Cozell McQueen got his hands on the ball after the miss but lost it, and Wilson went scrambling after it near the baseline. He knocked a pass back to Sampson as time expired. Somehow, some way, Sampson, in one motion, tapped Wilson's desperation pass toward the basket—and it swished, a couple of ticks too late. It was the cruelest of postscripts to a star-crossed career—another miracle play on another losing day.
From the beginning of the tournament Sampson had commanded center stage but once again had to settle for the role not of leading man but tragic hero.
Some of his opponents sensed Sampson's burden. "Even before the game I felt for Ralph," said Bailey, "though of course, I couldn't let it affect the way I played. I just thought what he's meant to this game, and how one of the reasons he didn't go pro was to get a shot at a title, and the pressure he must be under. You know, if I wasn't a basketball player, Ralph would be my idol."
But after the final buzzer against N.C. State, Sampson was left alone under the basket, holding the ball as Wolfpack players, coaches and fans converged at midcourt to celebrate. He took one hard dribble and threw down a slam dunk in frustration. Then he turned and walked off the court, away from the cheering, a direction he had gone before.
Futilely pounding the floor, Sampson vents the frustrations of his fruitless four-year pursuit of a national championship for Virginia.
West MVP Whittenburg had 24 points against the Cavs.
Charles tied the game, then sealed it up.