DALLAS -- They arrived here as the second-ranked team in the nation and the top seed in the Midwest Regional, but there was this Rodney Dangerfield complex among the Arkansas Razorbacks going into yesterday's game against Michigan.
"We win a game and it's 30 seconds of us on TV, and three minutes of somebody else," said Arkansas forward Corliss Williamson. "You pick up a paper and who do you see on the front cover: another team, not us. We felt like we deserved a little bit more publicity than what we were getting."
Let's call the publicity problem solved for the Razorbacks, who raced to an early 14-point lead and then held off a late Michigan rally for a 76-68 regional championship win and a trip to next week's Final Four in Charlotte, N.C.
The Razorbacks (29-3) did not disappoint President Clinton, a big Arkansas fan who arrived about 10 minutes before the game to a mixed reception. Afterward, the president came down to the floor and high-fived and embraced Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson -- who earlier in the day was named the national Coach of the Year.
"Never have I, as a coach, had these things happen all in one day -- Coach of the Year, president comes to the game and hugs you and win a trip to the Final Four," a jubilant Richardson said. "That's one heck of a day, fellas."
And while Richardson was enjoying his experience, the members of Michigan's famed "Fab Four" -- who played in the two previous national championships -- had to face not going to the finals for the first time.
"It hurts, badly," said Michigan center Juwan Howard, who had 30 points and 13 rebounds and was named the outstanding player of the region. "We've been so used to winning, and we've had two shots at [the title]. But we have no reason to hold our heads down. We made a great run -- we just fell a little short."
The fact that the Wolverines (24-8) got this far is a credit to a team that gave Chris Webber's old starting spot to a guy named Dugan Fife. The bulk of the scoring in the frontcourt was left to Howard who -- if he decides to enter the NBA draft -- saw his stock rise during the NCAA tournament in which he averaged 29.0 points and 12.7 rebounds.
Howard's performance yesterday came after he picked up two fouls in the first two minutes of the game.
"Juwan Howard was awesome," Richardson said. "Every time he touches the ball something good happens. We tried everything -- match-up, 1-3-1, man-to-man, double downs. And he was still able to have a good day."
But, aside from Ray Jackson, who made six of eight shots for 12 points, no other Michigan player came through. Guard Jalen Rose had been averaging 20.1 points in the tournament, but hit just five of 19 shots for 13 points, and had just one assist. And the Wolverines struggled from the outside, making just three of 17 shots (17.6 percent) from three-point range.
Still, Michigan was able to come back from a 14-point deficit early in the second half to pull to within 63-61 after Howard's short bank shot with 5:32 left. The Wolverines had a chance to tie on their next possession, but Rose -- leading a three-on-one break -- missed a contested layup instead of dishing off.
Arkansas center Darnell Robinson (14 points) scored on a tip at the other end for a 65-61 lead that the Razorbacks were able to safely maintain the rest of the way.
"I knew I had two or three guys with me, but 99 percent of the time I make that shot," Rose said. "It just didn't go in."
Had Michigan not endured a long drought in the first half, it may not have had to play catch-up late. The Wolverines had jumped out to an 8-3 lead, but went the next 5:16 without scoring -- and the next 6:12 without a field goal.
During Michigan's lull, the Razorbacks went on a 20-1 run -- including two three-pointers each by Scotty Thurman (20 points) and Al Dillard -- to go up 23-9. Arkansas, which had missed its first six shots, led the rest of the way.
"I was really surprised we were up by 14 because this is a very good Big Ten team," Richardson said. "Down the stretch we knew that Michigan is the type of team that finds a way to win. However, we are a team that finds a way to win and we did it."
And Arkansas did it for the first time this tournament without a big scoring game from Williamson (12 points), who was averaging 22 points in the tournament.
"They did a good job trapping on the post, and I just had to skip the ball out for open jump shots," said Williamson, who played the entire game. "Our guys were hitting their shots, and that kept us going."
The Razorbacks were a more than respectable 10-for-21 from three-point range -- with Thurman hitting four of eight.
Richardson afterward was quick to hand out plenty of thanks to Dallas, where the Razorbacks have won their past 13 games.
The last time the Razorbacks made it to the Final Four -- in 1990 -- they won the Midwest final here. "It seems like we have to get through Dallas to get to the Final Four," Richardson said. "Dallas has been very good to Nolan Richardson."
And it's a place where the Razorbacks also hope they've earned some respect, especially after beating one of the premier college teams in recent years.
"It gave us extra incentive to play hard, knowing they were a marquee team," Williamson said.
"We figured that if we beat them we would get some respect," Williamson added. "But I think we're going to have to go to
Charlotte to get the full respect we deserve."
YESTERDAY'S RESULTS East Regional final * Florida 74, Boston College 66
Midwest Regional final * Arkansas 76, Michigan 68
FINAL FOUR Saturday at Charlotte, N.C. * Duke (27-5) vs. Florida (29-7)
Arizona (29-5) vs. Arkansas (29-3)
April 4 at Charlotte, N.C.