Today we come to the end of our journey. Twenty years ago today is the day Arkansas defeated Duke and won the national championship.
Twenty years later and this is still so cool. The sold out crowds at Bud Walton Arena when the team is honored is a testament to how much the team still means to people in Arkansas.
Everybody who lived through it has their own story about it. Here's mine. I'd just turned 12 and at no point ever thought the team would lose. I remember watching the Arizona game at my grandparents' house, and then watching the championship game on my living room floor.
Even though Arkansas fell behind in the second half against Duke and it was tied with a minute left, I was too young and dumb to be nervous. Don't get me wrong, I knew it was a really big deal to win and I was excited, but I'll always remember turning around when the clock finally hit zero and seeing my Mom on the couch with a giant smile and clapping her hands and saying "They did it!" It's an image I remember as vividly as I remember Thurman's shot.
I didn't realize it then, but later on - after going through all the usual sports heartbreaks that document the life of any fan - how much it meant to everybody who'd gone through all the near misses. Arkansas had lost in the Final Four in 1978 and 1990. The Hogs were a 1-seed in 1991 but lost in the Elite Eight. When Arkansas played Indiana State in the NIT a couple of weeks ago, it was amazing hearing all the stories from those who still apparently weren't over the end of the 1979 Hogs/Sycamores game.
The closest I'd been to heartbroken at that point was when the 1992 team lost to Alabama in the SEC Tournament. And then when they were upset by Memphis in the NCAA Tournament, but only then because I was introduced to the concept of seniors not getting to play anymore. I didn't realize that was it for the MayDay crew until after that Memphis game and it was explained to me. It was quite a shocking disappointment to a young kid.
So when Arkansas finally broke through in 1994, it was and still is an intense source of pride. Everyone I knew had at least a championship t-shirt or a hat or something. Usually in multiple varieties. And that's not to mention the commemorative videos and banners and pennants and coke bottles and buttons and bumper stickers and a framed cover of Corliss Williamson's Hog Wild Sports Illustrated cover and framed copy of the Sports Illustrated special commemorative issue.
I remember immediately after the game, one of the local Little Rock news stations showed a shot of Main Street in downtown Little Rock at the moment the game was tipping off, and the street was completely empty. Razorback fans had been waiting for this for a long time.
So yeah, it's a big freaking deal. And it will still be fun to celebrate it on other major anniversaries for the rest of our lives.
The Duke Game
We pretty much all know the story. Arkansas had a small lead at halftime. Duke went on a run early in the second half, scoring 13 straight to take a 10-point lead with about 17 minutes to go, but Arkansas held the Blue Devils to just nine points over the next 11 minutes to retake the lead. The game was tied at 65, but Corliss Williamson scored the next five points, followed by five Duke points to tie the game at 70.
And then Scotty Thurman hit the biggest, most famous shot in Razorback history.
"It's a game where somebody won and nobody lost," said Coach K afterward. That's nice coach, but it's not true. Arkansas won and Duke lost. The Razorbacks hit a big shot in the last minute and Duke missed. That's usually how winners and losers are determined in basketball.
Big Nasty finished with 23 points and eight rebounds. Thurman and Beck both had 15 points, and Beck had a career-high 10 rebounds. Williamson of course was named Most Outstanding Player. Arkansas forced 23 turnovers and committed just 12, it led to the Razorbacks attempting 12 more shots than Duke, which they needed because Arkansas didn't shoot very well in the game, making just 39% of their shots. But it was enough to make one more field goal than Duke, and that's all that mattered.
The Arizona Game
This game seems to get overlooked when discussing the 1994 season for obvious reasons (it was "just" the semifinal), but it was also a big challenge for the Razorbacks. Arizona became one of the top programs of the '90s, winning it all in 1997, and the 1994 team featured one of the top backcourts in the country with future pros Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves.
Arkansas went on a 26-9 run in the middle of the first half, but the score was still tied at halftime. Beck was in foul trouble and had to sit early in the second half, and while he was on the bench, Arizona built a five-point lead. Nolan Richardson gambled and put him back in the game early with four fouls, and Beck was able to avoid ever getting that 5th foul, but the Hogs still had trouble putting the Wildcats away. They had a 67-62 lead with about eight minutes left, but that's when Arkansas began to dominate, eventually building to a 74-67 lead and pulling away.
Richardson would say afterward, "People talk about our 40 minutes of hell, that was 8 minutes of torture."
Williamson finished with 29 points and 13 rebounds. Thurman had 14 (12 of which came in the second half) and eight rebounds. Darnell Robinson and Clint McDaniel both had 12 points. The Hogs didn't have a big turnover advantage like they were accustomed to, but did hold Arizona's vaunted backcourt to a mediocre game. Stoudamire scored 16 points but was just 5-24 from the field. Reeves was better, scoring 20 on 6-19 shooting.
But it wasn't enough, and Arkansas was set to play on Monday night.
One last note before we conclude this series. Corliss Williamson was a dang beast. I know he's remembered as the best player, or at least one of the two best with Sidney Moncrief, in Razorback history. But I'd actually argue, especially after doing this series, he's underrated. Or at least under-appreciated. He didn't have a signature "moment" a la Thurman's shot or Al Dillard's epic game, and he didn't have unusually long range for a big man like Dwight Stewart, so it's hard to really say where he stood out. He was just a machine. Big Nasty had seven 20/10 games that year. He averaged over 20 points and nearly eight rebounds.
After watching the Hogs over the last several years and seeing how hard it's been for anybody to break 20 points, looking at all of Williamson's box scores just bowls you over, not unlike how he'd get to the rim on occasion. He was unstoppable that season. They don't make many like him.
And here's the "One Shining Moment" video from after the game was over. Arkansas isn't really in it unit the last 30 seconds or so, but if you can watch the slo-mo of Corey Beck celebrating without getting chills, I assume you're a closet Mizzou fan
Special thanks to HogStats.com, WarMachine2013 on YouTube, and those newspapers who've made their archives available for free and findable via a simple Google search (this is me giving you the stink-eye, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette). Those have been my main resources while doing this series throughout the year.