Got Mettle? 2019 Hoos Have Much in Common With Their Predecessors

April 4, 2019 By Whitelaw Reid, Whitelaw Reid,

Ralph Sampson and Lee Raker smiled when they spotted each other Sunday in a Cincinnati airport.

The University of Virginia basketball legends were still trying to process what they had witnessed only a few hours before at the NCAA Tournament’s South Region final in Louisville.

A missed free throw. A long rebound. An incredible pass. An improbable shot. One of the most dramatic endings in tournament history. The Hoos’ first Final Four in 35 years.

Pain to joy in 5.9 seconds.

“That’s why it’s called ‘March Madness,’” said Sampson, as he recounted his unexpected encounter with his former teammate in the afterglow of Virginia’s 80-75 overtime win over Purdue. “It was our chance to strike, and we did.”

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UVA basketball team holding up the NCAA championship trophy
Today’s UVA basketball team, above, shares something with its 1981 and 1984 Final Four predecessors: all forged their identities under adversity. (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

With what the ’Hoos had to endure in the year since a shocking first-round loss to University of Maryland-Baltimore County – critics proclaiming that they choked, that their style doesn’t work in the postseason, that they’re overrated – Saturday’s celebration felt oh so sweet.

Heading into this weekend’s Final Four in Minneapolis, the script has flipped.

Now it’s the Cavaliers’ mental toughness, perseverance and resiliency that is being lauded. (You can practically hear CBS commentator Jim Nantz’s opening monologue, can’t you?)

Truth is, they’ve had these traits all along.

They are traits that have extended beyond the wins and losses, starting with guard Kyle Guy and former forward Isaiah Wilkins (a member of last year’s team) courageously revealing personal battles with anxiety and depression, respectively.

In a Facebook post last spring following last season’s loss to UMBC, Guy wrote that having to be helped off the court by teammates as he was crying uncontrollably was a turning point.

“I vowed to not quit and to not let this define me. That feeling of drowning while being able to see everyone else breathe – I was going to work my ass off to never feel this way again,” he wrote.

You might say a similar kind of mettle defined UVA’s 1981 and 1984 Final Four teams. While those squads faced different kinds of challenges, both attacked them with a steely determination that reminds you of, well, a Coach Tony Bennett team.

The Road to Philly

Expectations were University Hall-high when Sampson, a 7-foot-4 wunderkind from Harrisonburg who spurned scholarship offers from the top programs in the country in favor of home-state UVA, arrived on Grounds in the fall of 1979.

Ralph Sampson black and white headshot in Basketball uniform

The Cavaliers already had Raker, Jeff Lamp and Jeff Jones (among others) and were coming off a modestly successful 1978-79 season in which they went 19-10 (7-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) and made the National Invitational Tournament.

With the addition of the ballyhooed Sampson, multiple trips to the NCAA Tourney seemed like a foregone conclusion.

But Sampson’s first season didn’t go as planned. After a 12-1 start, the Wahoos lost five of their last eight ACC games and were bounced by Clemson University in their first game of the ACC Tournament.

The Hoos didn’t receive a bid to the 1980 NCAA Tournament, and, for the third year in a row, returned to the NIT, where they eventually beat the University of Minnesota – led by future Hall-of-Famer Kevin McHale – in the championship game.

“Even though we won the NIT, it was a little bit of a failure,” Lamp said, “and I think having to live with that through the summer fueled us. We knew we were talented enough that we should be in a Final Four.”

“Things changed that summer for us,” Sampson agreed. “We were dedicated to getting back there the next year.”

Virginia won the first 23 games of the 1980-81 season, then beat Villanova University, the University of Tennessee and Brigham Young University en route to the Final Four at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.

UVA had one of the best players in college basketball history in Sampson – who won the first of three consecutive national Player of the Year awards that season – but was far from a one-man show.

I don’t think there was a smarter, tougher player than Lee Raker – and he was a great shooter,” Lamp said. “He would have been an assassin today with just the way he could shoot with range. He would have been a killer with the 3-point line.

“Jeff Jones was mostly our point guard, but also did play some [shooting guard]. He was just incredibly smart and a great passer – probably the brains to our crew back then. We had Othell Wilson, Ricky Stokes, Terry Gates and Craig Robinson and just some really good role players. And we were pretty versatile as well. Most of us could play at least two positions.”

Lamp himself was a deadly scorer, and still ranks second on UVA’s all-time scoring list with 2,317 career points, behind Bryant Stith and two spots ahead of Sampson.

1980-81 UVA basketball team sits together for a team photo

And then there was head coach Terry Holland.

“I don’t even know the words to say … what an amazing man,” Sampson said.

“He had a lot on his plate,” Lamp said. “A lot of people would have loved to be able to coach Ralph, but it’s not always so easy to bring in somebody with that talent level. To be able to fit him in, play to his strengths and still get stuff out of all the rest of us – that was great.”

Much like Bennett does today, Lamp said Holland did not let the players’ heads get too big as the team surged into the national spotlight.

“We were rated one or two most of that whole season, and he was able to help us keep our wits about us and stay humble and understand we were shooting for more than just regular-season things,” Lamp said. “Being able to handle the success was a big part of it.”

Having beaten the University of North Carolina twice during the regular season, UVA was confident heading into the season’s third meeting in the national semifinal.

Terry Holland teaching in front of a black board

But in the game at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, UNC swingman Al Wood – who had averaged 18.1 points per game during the season – erupted for 39. “Everything was going in, and then the rim started looking like a big ol’ tub,” Wood told the Salisbury Post in a 2016 interview.

Roanoke Times sportswriter Doug Doughty, a UVA alumnus who was elected to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 2018, said there wasn’t much the Hoos could have done differently. “Virginia didn’t blow anything,” he said. “It was more Al Wood than it was Virginia playing poorly.”

But that didn’t take the sting out of the 78-65 loss.

“It was horrible,” Lamp said. “It was great to have made the Final Four, but it was a thousand times worse to have lost.”

Two days later, UVA beat Louisiana State University in what would be the last NCAA third-place game ever played.

Still, Sampson looks back on the experience as a whole with great pride. “Going from no NCAA bid the year before to the Final Four was a big turnaround,” he said. “The dedication and the drive we had to get there was very special.”

After all, Virginia had never made it to a Final Four in its history before then.

“The fiber of UVA basketball started with the likes of Barry Parkhill and Wally Walker,” said Sampson, referring to the Hoos stars of the ’70s, “and we came in and took it to a different level.”

Surprisingly, Sampson never played in another Final Four. It wouldn’t be until two seasons later – and without Sampson, who had graduated by then – that UVA returned to college basketball’s biggest stage.

The Road to Seattle

Holland believes the groundwork for the 1984 run may have been laid the season before when the Hoos lost to Chaminade University of Honolulu – an NAIA member (not the NCAA) – in Honolulu on Dec. 23, 1982.

Looking back, Holland said the defeat – considered one of the biggest upsets in sports history – may have sparked something in his team, the same way the UMBC loss did for this year’s UVA squad.

“I do think teams tend to respond to things that have happened, both good and bad,” he said. “You want to right the wrong if you have that opportunity, and luckily we had that opportunity.”

The rewards wouldn’t come until the following season, though.

And they wouldn’t come easy.

Without Sampson – who, by then, was on his way to a Rookie of the Year season for the NBA’s Houston Rockets – UVA no longer possessed a superstar. And it showed.

The squad, led by guards Stokes and Rick Carlisle and first-year center Olden Polynice, went just 6-8 in ACC play. When the ’Hoos received a bid to the NCAA Tournament, many commentators complained that they didn’t deserve it.

“It was tough hearing that,” Polynice said, “but once we got in, we were like, ‘Hey, let’s make the most of it and prove people wrong.’ That was basically the mission.”

Othell Wilson shooting a basketball during a game

After surviving a nail-biter against Iona College in the first round, UVA found its groove.

“We beat Joe Kleine and Arkansas, who we weren’t supposed to beat,” said Polynice, referring to the Razorbacks’ 7-footer, a future NBA player. “And it just kept snowballing. It was amazing. None of the games we were supposed to win. We weren’t supposed to beat anybody.”

Upset wins over Syracuse University and Indiana University followed, sending Virginia to the Final Four in Seattle.

“We were always the underdog, in each of those games,” said UVA forward Jimmy Miller, now a color commentator on UVA basketball radio broadcasts. “You play freer, looser. We really enjoyed the experience of going through that. I think that helped us.”

Miller was named MVP of the East Regional.

“We had some good players,” said Miller. “We were a good team. We weren’t a great team – but we played together, and I think that is what the tournament is about.”

The Hoos also had some good coaches. Holland’s staff included future head coaches Dave Odom, Jim Larranaga, Seth Greenberg and Jeff Jones.

Polynice said the ’84 ’Hoos oozed resilience.

“If you look at that team, we all were underdogs,” Polynice said. “Ricky Stokes was diminutive. Rick Carlisle wasn’t fast enough. Othell can’t score. We all had knocks. We were a bunch of guys who people kept doubting and we just kept finding a way to put it together one game at a time.”

Meanwhile, Hall-of-Fame UVA sports information director Rich Murray, now retired, said the atmosphere in and around Charlottesville was electric.

“There was a level of enthusiasm and excitement that built as that team progressed,” he said. “There was question as to whether or not the team would get in the tournament, so that run really was unexpected.”

“It was an exciting team to watch, even after Ralph left the building,” said UVA alumna Jody Turner, who met her husband, Bryan, in the Pep Band. “During the 1980s, there were more Pep Band members who wanted to be in the basketball band than we were allowed, so we had a lottery system of our own to determine who from each [instrumental] section would go to which home and tournament games.”

Luckily, the Turners got to go to Seattle.

“It’s pretty amazing to think of the future NBA stars we saw during that Final Four, starting with [UVA’s] Rick Carlisle, [Houston’s] Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Williams [both of Georgetown],” Jody Turner said.

In Seattle, UVA finally met its match: a very big, very athletic, very skilled Olajuwon-led University of Houston team. The Cavaliers gave the Cougars all they wanted before finally succumbing in overtime, 49-47.

Old photo of Jimmy Miller cutting down the basketball net

“For four games, Virginia’s bid for an NCAA championship was straight out of a fairy tale, and then somebody went and changed the ending,” read the first paragraph in Doughty’s game story.

Holland, for one, still takes great satisfaction in knowing that nobody ever thought they would make it that far.

“That team was a team that sort of snuck up on everybody and did their job when the time came,” Holland said. “Quite honestly, we could have played at least one more round of the Final Four, but we had some tough breaks.

“They were a great group of kids who were not expected to even be there, and it went right down to the wire with Houston, who had some very good players on that team. They were just bigger and stronger than us at some of the key positions, which made it tougher on us.

“But the players went out there and had a chance at it. There was a tough call right near the end of that overtime. But we were proud of the kids and the way they played. The fact that they even got there surprised a lot of people, much less had a chance to win.”

The Road to Minneapolis

Now 35 years later, Holland, Sampson and a small army of former ’Hoos can’t wait until Saturday.

Sampson will be on hand in Minneapolis. Making the experience even more memorable is the fact that Braxton Key is a key contributor on this year’s team.

“He’s called me ‘Uncle Ralph’ since he was little,” Sampson said, “but he’s actually my mother’s brother’s grandson.

“What a way for history to be around our family. To have a relative of mine be there for the Final Four … It’s very surreal and special.”

Sampson will also be rooting hard for Bennett, with whom he has grown close over the last several years.

“Tony Bennett is a very special man,” Sampson said. “I always tell him that I’m glad he’s the coach here and that I’m honored to be around him. What he has done in terms of changing the culture of the program is special, and this will catapult it into another stratosphere. I’m really excited about that.”

Ralph Sampson, left, talking to Braxton Key, right

Lamp believes everything the ’Hoos have been through will be their biggest advantage.

“I think all of that kind of bonds you,” he said. “If you can come through that adversity, you’ll be stronger for it. That’s what you need in the Final Four, because there will be so many ups and downs in the course of a game. Just to have that resiliency and trust and camaraderie with your teammates is huge.”

When the Hoos made the 1984 Final Four, Murray was in his first year as a UVA SID.

“It’s a tremendous, wonderful experience,” he said. “You certainly hope that you’re going to have the opportunity to be with a team that gets back there, but it didn’t happen for 35 years for UVA. So you really need to soak everything in as best you can. I would certainly counsel somebody to really take advantage and soak it in and enjoy that moment, because you just don’t know if you’ll have that experience again.”

Holland said he wasn’t the least bit surprised by the way the final 5.9 seconds unfolded in Louisville last Saturday.

“I think,” he said, “we all thought they were going to find some way to win.”

Holland laughed when asked if he had any advice for the 2019 ’Hoos.

“I think they’re on their own at this stage,” he said. “They certainly don’t need an old crotchety guy like myself telling them what to do. They are a fun group to watch. What they do in terms of shots they make – I’ve been amazed. And I’ve been excited about them getting the monkey off their back in terms of making the Final Four.

“These kids have worked so hard and have had some tough breaks, but now being able to say that they’re part of a Final Four is something special. They’ve earned it.”

UVA basketball players huddled up during the game
The current team has benefitted from overcoming challenges together. “If you can come through that adversity, you’ll be stronger for it,” 1981 star Jeff Lamp said. (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

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Whitelaw Reid

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