C HARLOTTE, N.C. — The shot was a prayer; it left Scotty Thurman’s hand with one second left on the shot clock and arched so high, the President of the United States could have reached out and touched it from his special seat in the upper deck. Who knows? Maybe he did. How else could a championship like this be decided, but by presidential decree? Such a marvelous war of college enthusiasm, of skill and mistakes, of athleticism and brainwork, and here it was, score tied, less than a minute left, the ball leaving Thurman’s hand just inches from Tony Lang’s outstretched fingers, up, up, up, then down, down, down, and through the net softly, curling in off the back rim. It was such a surprise that the crowd swallowed and even the Arkansas players froze for a moment, wondering if this were real.
“I saw time was running out, and I realized someone had to step up and take the shot,” Thurman said after the 76-72 victory over Duke that won the Razorbacks’ first national championship. “I had the ball. It had to be me.”
That simple? Maybe he’s still in shock. What a game! They should have let them keep playing, all night, into the next day, until the sun came up. The greatest college basketball championship that many have ever seen was simply too good to end, over too fast; it was frenetic, your neck swinging back and forth to catch each basket, each change of possession. It wasn’t the world’s best shooting or the world’s best passing or the world’s best rebounding, but it was somehow magnificently matched, an eye for an eye, a mistake for a mistake, and so Duke would zoom ahead by 10, but Arkansas would zip back to take a five-point lead.
Down the stretch, the drama was as tangible as humidity on a Carolina summer afternoon, and the arena seemed to absorb all the available air. Breathing was difficult. Cheering was exhausting.
“What a game,” sighed Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski afterward. “I mean . . . what a game! . . . “
And his team lost!
Stars? This one had stars. It had Arkansas’ Corliss Williamson, The Big Nasty, waging his own personal inside war, banging for 23 points. And Duke’s Grant Hill, putting on such a spectacular farewell to the college game that it seemed he brought four pairs of arms, one for rebounding, one for blocking, one for playing defense, and one for shooting,
It had big baskets and big misses and fine strategy by each coach: Nolan Richardson milking his talent and depth advantage, Krzyzewski trying to squeeze one more miracle out of a rather thin but determined and defensive squad.
“We could never put them away,” said Richardson, “and they could never put us away.”
Not until that shot by Thurman, which will probably be painted and displayed at the state border as you drive into Arkansas — above a phrase that may become the new state motto:
“Whoo . . . pig . . . sooey!”
Hog Heaven. Did somebody lose?
“This is one of those games that somebody won, but nobody lost,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s kind of hard for me to be disappointed. I thought we played well the whole game.”
He sighed. He looked like a man who had aged 10 years.
But it was that kind of night.
The first half was like shopping in the Arkansas playbook. The Razorbacks surprised everyone by starting lesser-used senior Ken Biley at forward, then proceeded to shift players and defenses as if earning interest on each transaction. They used man-to-man. They used different zones. At times Duke picked them apart with pinpoint passing for easy baskets and at times, Duke suffered from the one thing that Arkansas kept giving them: the wide-open three-point shot. They couldn’t knock it down. They missed seven of nine.
The half ended with a one-point difference, 34-33.
Then came that marvelous second half, Duke grabbing a 10- point lead, but
“using a lot of emotion,” as their coach pointed out, seeming to tire in front of our eyes. Arkansas fought back physically, using its depth, grabbing rebounds, dropping in lay-ups. It was Williamson — who was voted the most valuable player — who consistently saved Arkansas. But it was also unlikely heroes, such as freshman center Darnell Robinson, hitting a jumper that Duke dared him to take, and Corey Beck, the starting guard who seemed to draw fouls more the way Duke usually does, notching free throws that helped his team back to the top.
“We’ve been behind before,” Williamson said. “But we hung with it. We were not going to quit until the finish.”
And so it twisted and turned as the clock ticked away, which was just so wonderful for college hoop fans. The referees let the players play, no one fouled out, there were misses followed by scrambles for rebounds, and blocks, and swipes, all the muscle dances that make college basketball the screamfest that it is.
“This was like a heavyweight fight,” Richardson said. “My turn, your turn, my turn, your turn.”
He paused, and added finally, “My turn.”
Hog heaven. Hill climbed mountains
A word here about Hill, who ended his college career with two national championships and Monday’s near-miss. He gave us one of those inspiring evenings, well beyond his 12 points on the scoresheet. Remember, this was not a hugely talented Duke team, and there were so many moments when it seemed to turn to him like younger brothers turn to their older brothers in a fight. Time and again, he came through, flying over everyone for rebounds — he had 14, more than anyone else on the court — and, oh, how many shots did he change with his defense, or block altogether? His one mistake might have been trying to do too much; he wound up with an uncharacteristic nine turnovers.
Still, Hill’s body seems suited to all five positions, and at times Monday night, he played them all. He will not only make a great NBA player, he may have moved to the top of every team’s wish list.
“I thought both teams played like champions,” Hill said. “I’m not going to hang my head. The only sadness I have is that I’ve played my last game at Duke.”
Listen carefully, ladies and gentlemen. That’s a senior talking. A dying breed.
As for Arkansas? Well, not only are the Razorbacks at the top of the polls and the top of the heap, they may be back next year, stronger than ever. Richardson made a big deal about getting “respect” he felt he was due him — in fact, he could teach Clinton a few things about soapbox grandstanding — but the fact is, he and Arkansas had respect all along. Nobody doubted this team, everyone was afraid of it, and it seemed that in the end, the only thing the sports world wasn’t sure of was how this story would wrap itself up.
Perfect ending, when you think about it. The arch of a desperation jumper, high enough to bring rain, true enough to bring tears, real enough to bring a championship someplace it has never been before. Richardson, who lost a daughter to leukemia in his second year at Arkansas, said he would leave the arena Monday with the same silent message he always sends her after a win.
“Baby, we got you another one.”
A big one, at that.