When Virginia lost the valued aggressiveness of its dynamite-stick guard, Othell Wilson, to a thigh injury just before the NCAAs, the Cavaliers' spirit was further vitiated. Tennessee gave away a tournament game to Virginia, but then the University of Alabama in Birmingham beat the daylights out of Sampson and other Cavs down low to eliminate them from the playoffs. "It was like those other games when we got lackadaisical because they didn't mean much," Sampson says of the UAB debacle. "I looked up at the clock, saw the game was tight and didn't know what was happening. I wasn't asserting myself enough. I wasn't using enough energy to get the ball." In the last 10 minutes of Virginia's 68-66 loss Sampson touched the ball exactly four times.
Sampson's NCAA tournament experience as a sophomore had ended in a similar bummer after Holland told him that the Cavaliers needed a flurry of points from him if they were to beat North Carolina in the semis at Philadelphia. Sampson tightened up, hyperventilated and made only three of 10 shots as the Cavs lost 78-65.
Measure these performances against Ewing's semi-astonishing display in his Final Four appearance, during which he cavorted about against Louisville and Carolina, thriving on the pressure of the two most important games of his brief career. One wonders who may yet arrive better prepared psychologically for this clash between titans.
History offers little clear guidance as to who'll win. The pitched battles between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were routinely won (11 NBA titles to two) by Russell, the smaller man, the defender. "I always felt Wilt was kind to basketball to let it survive," says Philadelphia 76ers Assistant Coach Jack McMahon. "Every night everybody on the other team would pray Wilt would shoot the fadeaway rather than turn into the basket. But Russ worked on his psyche, Russ thought in terms of team, and Russ came to beat you no matter what. I think Ewing has more of that in him."
Chamberlain-Russell was exclusively a pro rivalry, though, and Russell usually had the better supporting cast. And nobody should liken Chamberlain's back-to-the-basket, post-up style to that of Sampson, who plays out on the court, more often than not in a face-up position, and is notably unacquainted with the word selfish.
A more valid rivalry for comparison would be a collegiate rivalry, the George Mikan-Bob Kurland duels of the mid-405. They played five times over three seasons, with Mikan's DePaul team defeating Kurland's Oklahoma A&M Aggies on three occasions. Mikan, 6'9", the slow hooker, outscored Kurland, a 7-foot defensive practitioner, 77-64 in the five games. But the total point spread between the teams was only seven—and in Oklahoma A&M's favor. The Aggies won the NCAA title in 1945 and 1946 without having to face the Blue Demons in the tournament; following the 1944-45 season, Oklahoma A&M did play DePaul, which had waited around for a week in Manhattan after winning the NIT, in a benefit for the Red Cross. Again, as in Chamberlain-Russell, advantage to the defender. The Aggies won 52-44—Kurland getting 14 points, Mikan getting nine as he fouled out early.
More recently, the college game has seen two other center showdowns of historical as well as national-rankings significance. In both 1967 and 1968 UCLA and Lew Alcindor beat Houston and Elvin Hayes in the NCAA semifinals, but the game everyone remembers was the middle of the sandwich, on Jan. 20, 1968—Houston's 71-69 upset of UCLA. A crowd of 52,693 showed up at the Astrodome that night to see the first nationally televised, prime-time college game. (Hayes had 39 points; Alcindor, bothered by a scratched eyeball, went four for 18.) Six years later, in the 1973-74 season, North Carolina State and Tom Burleson upset UCLA and Bill Walton in the national semis—after having lost to the Bruins in the third game of the year—to end UCLA's NCAA title reign at seven in a row. Of course, the 7'4" Burleson and the 6'11" Walton did have two shorter helpers in David Thompson and Keith Wilkes. But the Sampson-Ewing matchup bears only a slight resemblance to these pairings of yore.
The other day Sampson was asked if he believed Ewing had reached Sampson's plateau. "I don't put myself on any level," he said. "I don't rate myself. I go into this game knowing he won't stop me and I won't stop him. It's who outthinks whom. I don't even know if we'll be the difference. Pat doesn't do a lot with the basketball, but he does what's needed. When he hit the turnaround jumper to start the championship game against North Carolina he surprised a lot of people. Not me. I figured he had the turnaround in there somewhere. He also may have a jump hook. We'll see."
For his part, Ewing plays down any mano a mano considerations. "I don't think either of us can singlehandedly beat the other team," he says. "I'm trying to learn the game as an art, a science—to pass better, set screens, receive the ball right, open my teammates for good shots. Ralph's a great player and he'll be able to do some things, but I hope anything he does I'll be able to offset. I don't have to score for us to win. All I need to do is play defense—any team plays defense, it'll come out on top."
Stripped bare, this struggle would seem to pit Sampson's offense, his size and his remarkable basketball skills against Ewing's defense, his athleticism and his competitiveness. But that's only one end of the floor. The game may turn on what happens at the other end, when Ewing and the rest of the Georgetown shooters converge on the defensive fortifications of Sampson and Virginia.