Friday, April 4, 2014

Hog Heaven

Today is a special day in the history of my alma mater.

Today is the 20th anniversary of Arkansas' victory over Duke in the national championship game.

Two days earlier, the Razorbacks had beaten Arizona in the national semifinals. As I wrote the other day, I was on a trip to Denver with some journalism students, and I missed that game — but I had set my video recorder to tape it, and I did watch it after I got home on Sunday, April 3.

Twenty years ago tonight, I was in my apartment in Norman, Okla., watching the title game. I'd been waiting all my life for the Razorbacks to win a national championship. I always hoped it would be in football, but I wasn't going to quibble on this day.

Most of my friends were living in Arkansas, and, to this day, I can still only imagine how excited they must have been — more excited, probably, than they were when Gov. Bill Clinton was elected president less than two years before.

In hindsight, I suppose it is easy to conclude that Corliss Williamson's presence on the team ensured its success, but I don't really think that is true. My friends who lived in Arkansas at the time — and got to see more Arkansas games than I did — might disagree with me, but I felt that it truly was a team effort.

Corliss was a special talent, of course. He was the Most Outstanding Player in the 1994 tournament — and might have been named the MOP again in 1995 if the Razorbacks had beaten UCLA in the national championship game that year.

But even in a sport like basketball. in which a team can put only five players on the court at a time, one person does not, cannot carry the whole load. Corliss had a great game 20 years ago tonight. He led all scorers with 23 points, but Corey Beck and Scotty Thurman contributed 15 points apiece.

That matched Antonio Lang's team–leading point production for Duke, which did a better job of spreading things around, I suppose. All five of Duke's starters were in double figures.

Williamson probably enjoyed more professional success than any of his collegiate teammates. After all, he did win an NBA title with the Detroit Pistons. But on this night in 1994, the Razorbacks prevailed not because of the depth of their bench but because of the depth of their hunger.

The Razorbacks of 1993–94 were the fruit of Richardson's system, the one he began installing in the lean years of the mid–1980s, when the team struggled on the court and Richardson's attention was divided between his job and his terminally ill daughter. The centerpiece was Williamson — he was clearly the go–to guy, hitting more than 62% of his shots from the field — but everyone played a role.

They called it "Forty Minutes of Hell." It was what happened when a team was relentless, always pressing, always probing for some weakness to exploit. And when it came to big shots, it seemed nearly everyone, not just Williamson, could be the hero.

Like Thurman, for example.

The Razorbacks led Duke by a single point at halftime, then fell behind quickly in the second half and had to claw their way back.

In the final minute, with the game on the line, Thurman fired the shot that, while it may not have been heard around the world, certainly was heard from one side of Arkansas to the other.

And Arkansas won, 76–72.

I recorded a brand–new greeting for my answering machine that night. I had a recording of the Arkansas fight song, and I played it in the background while I recorded some routine message. If someone wanted to leave a message for me, it was necessary to listen to the Arkansas fight song all the way through.

I remember that, as the announcers counted down the final seconds of the game, one observed that "Arkansas is in hog heaven."

That seemed a little trite, a little obvious to me at the time, but now I realize that it was appropriate.

It was like when I was in college, and the football Razorbacks hosted the top–ranked Texas Longhorns one October Saturday afternoon. No one gave the Hogs a chance, but they whipped the Longhorns that afternoon, and "hog heaven" described the euphoric atmosphere in Fayetteville that night.

Texas was always the greatest rival on Arkansas' schedule, and knocking the Longhorns from the #1 perch was like a dream come true for Razorback fans.

Few experiences in my life have matched the way I felt that day — or how I felt 20 years ago tonight when Arkansas won the national championship in basketball.

In Arkansas, they'll be re–living the experience tonight via Twitter. Fans can experience it virtually as it happened — albeit, essentially, by text.

But a digital re–creation can't possibly match the real thing.

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