Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP GAME REVISITED:
Richardson’s Hogs were at their best in ‘street fight’
Duke's Grant Hill, left, and Cherokee Parks, right, try to contain Arkansas' Corliss Williamson during the first half of the NCAA championship game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, April 4, 1994. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)
FAYETTEVILLE Everyone asks Scotty Thurman about the shot, especially around NCAA Tournament time, but he likes to talk about the pass.
Twenty years ago tonight, Thurman hit the biggest shot in Arkansas basketball history - a high, arcing three-point basket that just got over the outstretched right arm of Antonio Lang - to lift the Razorbacks to a 76-72 victory over Duke in the championship game of the 1994 NCAA Tournament in Charlotte, N.C.
Thurman’s three-pointer with the 35-second shot clock about to expire put Arkansas ahead to stay, 73-70, with 51 seconds left and the Razorbacks hit three free throws and held the Blue Devils to two points to clinch the title.
“Very few people talk about the pass,” said Thurman, Arkansas’ director of student athlete development. “They always want to talk about the shot.
POS. PLAYER HT. YR. PPG RPG
G Corey Beck 6-2 Jr. 8.8 3.9
G Clint McDaniel 6-4 Jr. 8.1 2.8
F Corliss Williamson 6-7 So. 20.4 7.7
F Scotty Thurman 6-6 So. 15.9 4.5
C Dwight Stewart 6-9 Jr. 8.8 5.0
G Alex Dillard 6-1 Jr. 8.9 1.1
G Roger Crawford 6-4 Sr. 7.4 1.9
C Lee Wilson 6-11 Fr. 3.4 3.1
G Davor Rimac 6-7 Jr. 4.8 1.9
C Darnell Robinson 6-11 Fr. 7.6 4.7
“What if the ball never makes it to me? Then I don’t get a chance to even get a shot up.”
Dwight Stewart - who hit 37 three-point baskets on the season - was at the top of the key and appeared to have an open look when he bobbled the ball. With the defense closing in, Stewart passed to Thurman on the right side.
Thurman, 3 of 5 on three point attempts against Duke and 85 of 198 for the season, said a lot of players in Stewart’s place might have forced up a bad shot.
“I just thought it was big-time of Dwight, at that moment, to gather himself and make a great pass,” Thurman said. “I always credit him for having the presence of mind to remain unselfish even when it was a very, very tense moment in the game. He showed what we had worked on all year - to believe in one another.”
Stewart, 0 for 5 from three point range, got his fourth assist of the game.
“I call it the assist that changed the world of Arkansas basketball,” said Nolan Richardson, who coached Arkansas to a school-record 390 victories in 17 seasons from 1985-2001. “Without Dwight’s assist, there’s no shot for Scotty.
“So it was the greatest assist, along with the greatest shot. It was both of them. I look at them as two great, great plays.”
‘WHATEVER IT TAKES’
The Razorbacks rallied from a 10-point deficit, 48-38 with 17:09 left, to beat Duke. Two days earlier, they erased a five-point Arizona lead in the final eight minutes to beat the Wildcats 91-82 in the national semifinals.
“I remember in both those games when we were behind telling our guys, ‘Hey, baby, it’s time to get in a street fight,’ ” Richardson said. “That means everything goes. You have to do whatever it takes in order to have a chance to win.
“It wasn’t about X’s and O’s, it was about how can we come out and perform at peak level? I could do that with our team. They were very coachable. I thought they saw the game through my eyes.”
Thurman recalled a moment during the Arizona game when Wildcats guard Damon Stoudamire talked with Thurman and Razorbacks point guard Corey Beck about the frantic pace while the teams we were waiting for a free throw to be shot.
“Stoudamire said, ‘Man, how do y’all play like this? I’m tired,’ ” Thurman said. “Corey and I were looking at each other like, ‘Did you hear what he just said?’ I said, ‘Well, let’s keep the pressure going.’
“It was always kind of comical to us when we heard teams complaining about the pace. We always felt like it if an opposing player talked about how tired he was, that was even more incentive for us. It was like, ‘OK, this is the part of the game we’ve been waiting for, so let’s go ahead and open this thing up.’
“We knew the work we had put into it in practice.”
‘MAN, PURE MAN’
Arkansas power forward Corliss Williamson was voted the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four after having 29 points and 13 rebounds against Arizona and 23 and 8 against Duke.
“Corliss was no question the best post player in the country,” Richardson said. “He had great hands, and he was strong as a bull. He was a man - pure man - and everybody knew it.”
Rob Evans, a former Razorbacks assistant who was Ole Miss’ head coach from 1992-1996, recalled seeing Williamson in the Walton Arena weight room when the Rebels played at Arkansas.
“It was scary to come in there and the first thing you see is Corliss lifting weights,” Evans said. “Then he’d go out and get 25 points and 15 rebounds.
“Once he got the ball inside, you were at his mercy because he was so skilled as a scorer.”
Williamson was the only first-round NBA draft pick from the 1994 Razorbacks - No. 13 overall in 1995 to Sacramento - and only one to enjoy a lengthy NBA career. Darnell Robinson, a freshman center in 1994, was the last player drafted in 1996 - No. 58 by Dallas - but he never played in the NBA. Beck and Clint McDaniel had brief NBA careers as free agents.
“Arkansas had talent, but sometimes it’s better if you don’t have so many NBA players because then it’s an unselfish team,” Evans said. “They understand their roles, they’re a little bit easier to coach, and they don’t have so many people in their ears.”
The 1994 Razorbacks, who finished 31-3, averaged 93.4 points but only two players averaged more than 9.0 points - Williamson (20.4) and Thurman (15.9). Six other players averaged between 8.9 and 7.4 points.
Thurman led a group of good three-pointer shooters, which included Stewart, Mc-Daniel, Alex Dillard, Roger Crawford and Davor Rimac. The Razorbacks hit 301 three point baskets.
Beck and McDaniel provided relentless on-the-ball defense while Robinson and Lee Wilson, both 6-11, gave the team a strong inside presence to take some pressure off Williamson. The Razorbacks had additional depth with forwards Ken Biley, Elmer Martin and Ray Biggers.
“It’s kind of like a puzzle you put together, and we had the right pieces,” said Mike Anderson, Arkansas’ current coach who was Richardson’s assistant from 1985-2001. “We just had a lot of weapons. It was a total team. No one cared who got the glory, and when we got to the big stage, those guys performed.”
Biley said Williamson and Thurman played like stars but never acted like they were better than their teammates.
“Corliss and Scotty are both down-to-earth guys,” Biley said. “They respected everybody on the team and would do anything for you. We always looked out for one another.”
Richardson started four different combinations in six NCAA Tournament games, using more inside power to beat Georgetown and Michigan and more speed and quickness to beat Tulsa on the Razorbacks’ way to the Final Four.
“We could play you any kind of way, and I could play any combination against you,” Richardson said. “I was in no way predictable.”
Richardson said he had a full team of leaders, but Beck topped the list.
“Corey was really the guy who held everybody together,” said Dave England, Arkansas’ basketball trainer for 31 seasons. “If I ever had any little problem, I’d tell Corey about it and he’d get it fixed.
“If somebody was late for getting treatment or was being noisy in the hotel hallway on the road, I’d tell Corey, ‘Why don’t you handle that so Coach won’t have to worry about it.’ Corey would take care of it, because those guys listened to him.
“People just naturally followed him, and there’s no doubt he’s the toughest player I’ve ever been around. He was always going to play.”
Arkansas won the 1994 SEC regular-season title with a 14-2 record, losing at Alabama and Mississippi State by a combined three points and winning 90-82 at Kentucky. The Razorbacks took a 13-game winning streak into their rematch with Kentucky in the SEC Tournament semifinals in Memphis but lost 90-78 to the Wildcats.
“We didn’t come in overconfident, but losing that game maybe helped humble us a little bit more to be able to go out and win the national championship,” Thurman said. “If we had won the SEC Tournament, maybe we wouldn’t have performed as well as we did in the NCAA Tournament.
“I would like to believe that was a little bit of a wake up call for us to realize, ‘Hey, we’ve got to focus more on being able to win every game,’ because survive and advance is the name of the game in the NCAA Tournament. You can’t have any slip-ups.”
Thurman said the Razorbacks were able to carry a chip on their shoulders throughout the NCAA Tournament, and it intensified the day of the title game when their morning shoot-around at Charlotte Coliseum was limited to a few minutes because of a scheduling misunderstanding.
“We were supposed to have 45 minutes to shoot, but then we only got to be on the court for two or three minutes and we just got up a few rushed shots,” Thurman said. “We were at a point where we said, ‘OK, this is the last straw. We don’t even get to have a shoot-around?’
“So we were determined to go out and prove to everybody that we can win this thing. To be able to do that against Duke in the state of North Carolina was just icing on the cake.”
Not everybody was against Arkansas.
President Bill Clinton, the former Arkansas governor, was in Walton Arena for the Razorbacks’ 129-63 victory over Texas Southern, then attended their NCAA Tournament victories over Michigan and Duke.
“I talked to him from time to time on the phone during the season, and he’d be wishing us luck,” Richardson said. “The game would be on TV, and he’d sneak out of whatever meeting he was in so he could see what the Razorbacks were doing. He was a true fan.
“I remember President Clinton had tears of joy when we won in Charlotte. It was unbelievable.”
Richardson said it’s difficult to believe that it’s been 20 years since Arkansas won its lone national championship in basketball.
“It’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life like it happened yesterday,” Richardson said. “That’s just the magnitude of winning the national championship.
“Those kids on our team had so much heart, and it was just a matter of it coming out. With that team, it all came out together.”
Sports, Pages 19 on 04/04/2014