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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.