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Curry Kirkpatrick
April 06, 1981
As though drawing inspiration from the Book of Isaiah, baby-faced Isiah Thomas spurred Indiana to a fourth NCAA championship
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April 06, 1981

And A Little Child Led Them

As though drawing inspiration from the Book of Isaiah, baby-faced Isiah Thomas spurred Indiana to a fourth NCAA championship

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Barbed wire is what North Carolina vs. Virginia had been in two previous matchups. The Tar Heels spent so much time figuring out how to control Sampson, they forgot how to control the ball with 13- and 16-point leads. "I don't think the down-13 trick will work again." UVA Coach Terry Holland said. When Carolina's Wood drove the baseline for a double-pump, no-look no-chance, oly-oly-oxen-free, reverse layup either over or under or between Sampson—no one was quite sure—the score was 74-58 Carolina with 1:13 remaining, and Holland was out of tricks.

It has been said that no mere mortal can beat the Dean of basketball three times in one season. After the ACC tournament, the gag was that Holland would take his 2-0 over Smith and go home. Certainly, though, the Tar Heels, who won Saturday's semifinal 78-65, laughing, would have lost if Sampson had played like the young Abdul-Jabbarian clone he's supposed to be. Or if Wood had broken both his legs. What was significant was not so much the adjustment Carolina had to make for the 7'4" Sampson, but what Virginia had to do against the 6'6" Wood.

The Cavaliers began and ended the first half in a zone, then moved to a diamond and one, then straight-up man-to-man. At least five different Cavs tried to guard or at least knock on Wood. Result: Al was 14 for 19 from the floor; 11 for 13 from the line; 39 points; 10 rebounds. A semifinal scoring record. "I didn't dominate," said Wood, being modest and wrong all at once. "It just so happens I had a short guy on me."

It just so happens that over a stretch of 10:28 late in the second half, Wood scored nine baskets and 22 points. The spree went from UNC up 39-37 to UNC up 74-58. Al Wood 22, Virginia 21. Say good night, Wahoos.

What about the big guy? In UNC-UVA I, Smith threw a collapsing zone at Sampson; in II, more man defense with help. This time Carolina combined the two and was more effective primarily because the 6'9" Perkins was able to combat Sampson virtually head-on, alone.

When the game was close—through the middle of the second half—the Tar Heels would constantly switch defenses, and when Perkins himself wasn't denying Sampson room—"I've learned how to touch him, to use my arms and hands," Perkins said—he got help from Worthy in from the wing or 6'1" freshman swing-man Matt Doherty sagging down. After 10 to 15 seconds of not getting the ball each time down the court, Sampson's resolve visibly weakened. He was flat-footed, standing around. Perkins matched his stats exactly, 11 points and nine rebounds. But Perkins was 4 for 7 from the floor and Sampson 3 for 10. Late in the game Sampson even leaned against the basket post in a way that caused Wood to ask after his health.

Offensively, the Virginia center got little help from the perimeter—Jeff Lamp and Jeff Jones shot 12 for 31—and though Lee Raker did his usual escapee-from-M*A*S*H routine, his 13 points were not enough.

Bottom line: Holland and the Cavs were as unable to deal with Sampson's offensive difficulties as they were with Wood's offensive brilliance. "He was so aggressive with the ball," Lamp said. Yes. Wood off the glass. Wood to the end-line. Wood out front. Wood had gotten 33 points against Virginia the last time, so the Cavs were aware of the danger. "We got beat by a great player having a great day," Holland said.

On Monday night it was back to Biblical times, in a manner of speaking. For much of the weekend Isiah's thunder had been stolen by Wood, by another guy on his own team with his own name—and by a wastebasket, for goodness' sake. On Sunday, Thomas was asked if Knight had ever thrown him into a wastebasket. "Not yet," he said.

Well, after grinning all over the Spectrum and bearing the national championship away, what else could a nice and easy fellow like Thomas, I. say?

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