Virginia for basketball lovers; gymnastics peak

Just because Ralph Sampson no longer plays in Virginia doesn't mean the state lacks for basketball excitement. In fact, there's probably more than ever. Just look at what's been happening in tournament play.

Virginia colleges have been involved in some of this season's most thrilling playoff games. After beating Iona 58-57, the Sampsonless Virginia Cavaliers upset Arkansas 53-51 in the only overtime game played thus far in the NCAA Division I men's tournament. In first-round games, Virginia Commonwealth University beat Northeastern 70-69 on a shot at the buzzer and Richmond toppled Auburn 72-71.

Meanwhile, in Division II action Virginia Union lost a one-point heartbreaker to Kentucky Wesleyan, while in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), Virginia Tech moved on to the quarterfinals with a 68-66 victory over South Alabama. The winning basket in the latter game came on a disputed tap-in with three seconds left.

Virginians also are following the women's teams of Old Dominion and Virginia Union, which remain alive in the NCAA Division I and II tournaments respectively. The Old Dominion men's team was a first-round NIT loser.

Of all the state's basketball representatives, the University of Virginia's team has been the most closely scrutinized. After Sampson's graduation, fans were curious about how the Cavaliers would fare without the 7 ft. 4 in. All-American.

Their 17-11 record was more than respectable playing in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference, and underlined the fact that Virginia was not a one-man team. Virginia, after all, had beaten powerful Houston last season without Ralph, and seasoned vets like Othell Wilson, Rick Carlisle, and Ricky Stokes were eager to prove what sort of team remained. A pretty good one as it turns out.

A more relaxed one, too. For the Cavaliers are now in the enjoyable postion of being underdogs, unshackled by the weighty expectations of the Sampson years, which never produced a national championship.

With a victory over Syracuse tonight, the Cavaliers would make the quarterfinals and equal last season's tournament finish. The furthest Virginia ever advanced with Ralph was to the national seminfinals in 1981. Hitting gymnastic ceiling

The gymnastics world has backed itself into a corner and now must look for a way out. With more and more athletes attaining perfect scores, the carrot may need to be raised a notched. Just how to do this is a question for gymnastics experts, but something's got to give.

Until it does, we can expect 10s to become increasingly commonplace. Last weekend, for example, several were recorded in the McDonald's American Cup gymnastics meet in New York, the last major international competition before the Olympics. Before this year, the meet had produced only one perfect score, that by Nadia Comaneci in 1976.

Mary Lou Retton of Fairmont, W. Va., copped a pair of 10s this time, one in the floor exercise and the other in the vault. Retton's coach, interestingly enough, is Bela Karolyi, Comaneci's former mentor. Karolyi, the national coach of Romania before he defected to the US in 1981, now schools some of the best American gymnasts at his Houston gymnastics club.

He calls Retton's floor exercise routine the most difficult in the world, yet she learned it in only five days, and not the more standard two or three months. While Retton was defending her title in the men's competition, Peter Vidmar retained the men's crown. The powerful Russians didn't participate. Touching other bases

* The NCAA college basketball tournament will expand from 53 to 64 teams next year, thereby doubling the size of the 1978 field.

* Last week, the Chicago Bulls defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 156-155 in four overtimes. The longest game in NBA history, however, occurred in 1951. Indianapolis beat Rochester in six overtimes that year, but without a shooting clock the pace of play was much more deliberate and the final score only 75-73.

* Switzerland's Pirmin Zurbriggen failed to win an Alpine skiing medal at last month's Sarajevo Olympics, but his high finishes throughout the winter allowed him to clinch the men's World Cup championship in Europe last week.

American Phil Mahre, who announced his retirement recently, had won the last three overall Cup titles.

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