The Virginia basketball program was at the forefront of the national stage—not just for college basketball, but sports overall, when 7’4” center Ralph Sampson played there from 1980-83. Sampson was considered one of the best to ever play the game and all eyes were on him to see if this freak of nature could lead Virginia to a national title.
The Cavaliers never got to that lofty goal—indeed March disappointments were to become routine. But the 1981 NCAA Tournament at least saw Sampson’s Cavs reach the Final Four.
Sampson was in his sophomore year, after leading Virginia to an NIT title as a freshman—keep in mind, college lineups were dominated by mostly veterans at this time, and the NCAA Tournament field was limited to 48 teams. The NIT crown was a significant splash for Virginia to make in Sampson’s first year.
The 1981 season saw Virginia tear off 22 consecutive wins to start the year. This included beating North Carolina twice, including an 80-79 thriller at Chapel Hill. While Sampson was Virginia’s meal ticket, averaging 18 points/11 rebounds per game, the Cavs weren’t a one-man show. Senior captain Jeff Lamp knocked down 18 ppg in the backcourt, and was aided by reliable guards in Jeff Jones and freshman playmaker Othell Wilson.
Virginia’s winning streak continued until February 22, a Sunday afternoon when they visited the Midwest to play Notre Dame at the Rosemont Horizon. The Irish were coached by Digger Phelps, with a reputation as a giant-slayer.
The legend of Digger grew on this day, when Virginia held a 56-55 lead in the closing seconds, when Irish forward Orlando Woolridge scooped up a loose ball on the right baseline and hit a turnaround jumper as time expired. It was a play and shot this then-11-year-old writer would mimic in the backyard many times, and the status of the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers as college basketball’s last perfect champions was safe.
Virginia would lose the following game at Wake Forest, an obvious letdown, but coast to a 13-1 conference record and the ACC title. The Cavs lost in the semis of the league tournament, but still got the #1 seed in the East for the 1981 NCAA Tournament.
The 48-team bracket meant the top 16 teams nationally received byes, so Virginia needed just one win to reach the regionals. They had to fight past Rollie Massimino’s Villanova team—who would pull one of the sport’s all-time great upsets four years later—with a 54-50 win to reach the Sweet 16.
Atlanta was the site of the regionals and the intrigue was with who Virginia might play in the final. The other side of the draw had BYU, whose exciting guard Danny Ainge, had beaten out Sampson for the Wooden Award as national Player of the Year. Or…there was a rematch with Notre Dame. Either way, it was a grudge match of some sort and college hoops fans couldn’t lose.
Virginia still had their own Sweet 16 game to play though, against Tennessee and future NBA starter Dale Ellis. Sampson did not play well, shooting 4-for-13 and ending with nine points. Virginia led just 27-26 at the half, but Lamp shot the ball well, scored 18 points and helped the Cavs pull away 62-48.
BYU beat Notre Dame by a point on an electric coast-to-coast drive by Ainge, who beat all five Notre Dame defenders, including two of them twice to, put his team in the final. But he would be the star who struggled in the final, with Virginia forcing Ainge into his own 4-for-13 game. Sampson was back on the beam, scoring 22 points and pulling down 12 rebounds. Lamp knocked down 18 more and was named the regional’s Most Outstanding Player as Virginia dominated the second half and won 74-60.
Virginia came to Philadelphia on a good roll and seemingly ready to cap it off with a national title. But in the bad luck that would seem to settle on this program in March during Sampson’s tenure, they ended up drawing North Carolina in the national semifinal. It’s never easy to beat a good team three times, and it certainly wasn’t here. UNC’s Al Wood poured in 39 points, while Sampson struggled to a 3-of-10 game and the Cavs lost 78-65.
To the surprise of everyone, there would be no happy return. Virginia not only would never reach the Final Four again, they would never even win an ACC Tournament with Sampson. No one can blame Virginia fans for feeling there was a lot of missed opportunity in the four seasons from 1980-83. But at least they got a Final Four trip out of it in the spring of 1981.