Razorbacks Drop North Carolina to Advance to Final
By J.A. Adande
How to describe the Razorbacks' five-game stretch that has included phantom timeouts, mystery foul calls and now tonight's events, such as center Dwight Stewart hitting a 55-foot shot at the end of the first half, while North Carolina's Donald Williams -- "One of the best shooters in the country," according to Arkansas marksman Scotty Thurman -- gets a great look at the basket and tries a three-pointer that can tie the game with 10 seconds left -- only to have it rim out?
Call it fate, perhaps. Or destiny. Those were the words that started to filter through the Kingdome after Arkansas' 75-68 victory over North Carolina in a national semifinal tonight at the Kingdome.
"If you're asking me if I believe in the Lord, I would say, Yes, I do,' " Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson said. "I also believe that the harder you work, the luckier you get. I also believe that you've got to have luck at the right place at the right time to be successful. There's got to be destiny involved, I suppose. There's got to be a certain amount of luck, there's got to be a certain amount of skill. But I think more than luck, you must put yourself in a position to be lucky, and that's what our team has done."
By advancing to Monday night's NCAA title game against UCLA -- which defeated Oklahoma State, 74-61, in the other semifinal -- the Razorbacks (32-6) have put themselves in a position to become only the second team to win back-to-back championships since UCLA in 1972 and 1973. Duke did it in 1991 and 1992.
And if Richardson wants an example of hard work, he can look at Corliss Williamson's effort in the second half, when the junior forward scored 19 of his 21 points and grabbed nine of his 10 rebounds.
There was no Clinton (the President was too busy to attend this year's Final Four, after doing so last year). But there was Clint McDaniel, who made four free throws in the final minute to seal the victory for Arkansas and snuff out a strong comeback by North Carolina.
In the second half, Arkansas' defense kept North Carolina without a field goal for 12 minutes 47 seconds, and the Tar Heels (28-6) trailed by 11 points with 3:35 left after another three-pointer by Stewart. But Jerry Stackhouse made two free throws with 3:06 left, starting a run of 10 consecutive points by the Tar Heels. It could have been more, but they missed 3 of 6 free throw attempts in the last two minutes. Still, they were within three after McDaniel's free throws with 27.5 seconds left.
It was just another routine nail-biter for the Razorbacks, who have won 10 of their past 11 games decided by three points or fewer. They've won five games in which they trailed with at most 12 seconds remaining, including their second-round victory over Syracuse, when Lawrence Moten called a timeout his team didn't have, allowing the Razorbacks to send the game into overtime on the resulting technical foul free throws. They won when a hand-check call on Memphis let them shoot another free throw to send it into overtime in the regional semifinal. Their only loss came when they blew a nine-point lead with 1:32 left in overtime of the Southeastern Conference championship against Kentucky. And they almost lost this one.
"I'm not too sure if :my players: liked me all year long," Richardson said. "They've tried to put me away under the grave, because we had a chance to put the game away and we figure out a way to let you play some more."
Near the end tonight, the Tar Heels got the ball in the hands of Williams, whose sharp shooting in the 1993 tournament helped North Carolina win the championship -- and helped him to earn the tournament's most outstanding player award. He came around a pick by Stackhouse out on top and fired.
"Jerry set a good screen for me," Williams said. "That's one of my best spots on the court. When I shot it, it felt good, but it didn't go in."
It was quite the opposite at the end of the first half. The Tar Heels still had a seven-point lead and a chance to pad it with 3.6 seconds left in the half. A turnover by Williamson gave them the ball in the backcourt. Pat Sullivan tried to go deep to Wallace but overthrew him. The ball bounced off the floor, then off the backboard, and Davor Rivac chased it down and gave it to Stewart. Stewart fired up a shot from 55 feet that hit nothing but net as the buzzer sounded.
"He'll make one out of 500 of those," North Carolina Coach Dean Smith said.
Actually, Stewart claims to make them quite often in practice. Tonight, "I just knew I had a good look," Stewart said. "When I shot it, it was aiming right and I had to follow through. It was aiming and it just went straight in." As fate would have it.
The Razorbacks have now won 11 straight tournament games, getting revenge tonight against the last team to beat them, in the regional semifinals in 1993.
The Tar Heels left with the bad break, like Stackhouse getting knocked in the right thigh on the first possession of the game.
"It did throw me off," Stackhouse said. "I couldn't do the things I wanted to as far as running the court."
Stackhouse did manage to score 18 points, second on the team behind Williams's 19.
"Deep inside our hearts, we know as individuals that we have had a phenomenal season," Richardson said.
"We took everybody's best shot -- everybody's. And we are still ticking. So we've got one game to go and let us hope that we end the fairy-tale story."
© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company