The amazing thing about a moment of euphoria is that it's the result of some long effort or journey, but in the moment, you forget about all the prelude because you can't really think. You just feel. You hear eighteen thousand voices screaming in more amazement and shock than joy. You see thirty thousand arms shooting up and towels and shirts getting tossed in the air. Or maybe the bar erupted or your phone blew up or your living room furniture is out of whack the next morning or your message board instantly started 20 new threads titled with variations of "OMG QUALLS BEST FINISH EVER!!!!"
It's not until shortly afterward, when your cognitive capabilities return that you're able to really grasp what any of it meant and why it was so great.
It was something of a redemption. Michael Qualls opened SEC play with a pair of really awful games, going 3-for-22 from the field and scoring 12 points total. He was finally able to hit some shots against Kentucky and ended up with 18 to bust out of his slump, even if the last two are the only ones anybody remembers.
Qualls has certainly developed a name for himself by his highlight dunks, appearing on the SportsCenter Top 10 three times already this season heading into Tuesday night, but he hadn't been able to get one in SEC play. He tried throughout the game. He nearly had one in the second half but was stopped on a nasty block by a Kentucky player. He tried flying in from the wing once or twice but the best result he could get was drawing a foul. It wasn't until the last seconds when he flew in from behind the three point arc when Madden launched his shot, the ball bricked off the rim, bounced off the glass, and into Qualls' perfectly positioned hands that he finally got his first SEC dunk of the year - and earned himself a spot on highlight reels for a long time to come.
The Razorbacks couldn't afford for Alandise Harris to sulk after the disappointing plays at the end of regulation and overtime against Florida. Coty Clarke had one of his worst games against Kentucky - fouling out in just 17 minutes and scoring only two points, and Harris had to fill in for him. He delivered, converting what was nearly the game-winning three point play at the end of regulation, and hit a pair of free throws early in overtime that kept Arkansas tied with the Wildcats. The tension leading up to his free throws was incredibly thick with memories of the Florida game still fresh for everyone. He deserves a ton of credit for making them.
Mardracus Wade has been in and out of the lineup all season, but made a crucial play in overtime in forcing Andrew Harrison into an over-and-back turnover that eventually led to Bobby Portis shooting free throws at the other end of the floor, and helping Arkansas maintain their lead. Wade also hit a three in the first half that pushed Arkansas' lead to nine points, which was their biggest lead of the night.
Arkansas' entire bench, which was essentially a non-factor in the first two games after playing well throughout non-conference play, stepped up. Eleven different Hogs scored points. In addition to Harris and Wade, Jacorey Williams made three free throws and grabbed five rebounds in just nine minutes of action. Kikko Haydar knocked down five free throws, had an assist, and somehow ended up with a pair of rebounds in his 15 minutes. Fred Gulley is a starter, but his nine points were huge as well, and he came into the game averaging less than four.
And the Razorbacks needed that bench more than ever because of the way officials were calling fouls throughout the game. Everyone knows how talented Kentucky's starting five is. Julius Randle, James Young, and Aaron Harrison combined for 59 points, but Willie Cauley-Stein fouled out in 18 minutes and Andrew Harrison was never able to get in a rhythm, eventually fouling out himself. The Wildcats' bench only scored 17 total points to Arkansas' 29.
But mostly, it was redemption for the entire team. The game at times felt very similar to the Florida game, in that it stayed pretty close throughout, and Arkansas had a chance to win it at the end of regulation. When Andrew Harrison hit the three to send the game to overtime, I can't imagine too many people felt very confident. It was starting to feel like a replay. And Kentucky even scored first in overtime, but instead of getting behind like they did against the Gators, the Razorbacks stayed with them. First it was Rashad Madden's layup, then it was Harris's free throws. Then Qualls made a close basket to take the lead and eventually the ending happened.
And because the team stared the same Florida situation in the face and overcame it, the team still has a lot to play for. This weekend's game against Georgia matters. It didn't have to. In the letdown after Florida, many were speculating on a possible 0-5 SEC start if Arkansas lost to Kentucky, and despite all the success Arkansas has in Bud Walton Arena, something to which I think people around the country give the Razorbacks more credit than even Arkansas fans do, it certainly seemed to be an ugly, likely scenario. But it's not. This Razorbacks team showed there's still a reason this season to lace them up, fill the arena, or turn on the TV. And that's fantastic.
The fans of course had every reason not to show up. Over the past week, this promising basketball team suffered a deflating loss to Texas A&M and a heartbreaker to Florida - instantly draining much of the team's support in the process. But the fans, led by an overflow student section, showed up, were loud, and saw something they'll never forget.
Every year, Arkansas fans lament the condition of the basketball program, complaining about the increasingly lengthy series of events that have led us to the current predicament. People wonder if the program will ever return the status that inspired the need for a nearly 20,000 seat arena. The arena is rarely 75% full these days, and in non-conference play it struggles to fill half, but it seems like for a game or two each season, the fans do show up and are treated to a flashback. Last year it was Florida and Missouri, two years ago it was Michigan, a few years ago it was Oklahoma and Texas.
And every time it happens, we all wonder if this time the Arkansas basketball program has turned a corner, if it's "back". I don't know. I hope last night was the metaphorical corner. The program is certainly not all the way there yet, but moments like last night keep alive the possibility that it can be.
And that keeps us coming back.
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