With eight minutes to go in their NCAA semifinal at the Charlotte Coliseum last night, the Razorbacks looked like another team that had taken the Wildcats lightly. Their point guard was saddled with four fouls, they had gone nearly 18 minutes without a three-pointer and they were behind by five.
There are many reasons why Arkansas has the best winning percentage in the nation and the favorite's role in this Final Four, however, and most of them surfaced in a 12-0 spurt that lifted the Razorbacks to a 91-82 victory over the Wildcats and into their first NCAA title game.
The Razorbacks will meet the Duke Blue Devils in tomorrow night's NCAA championship game before another sellout crowd that presumably again will include their First Fan, President Clinton.
Arkansas is the first Southeastern Conference team to make the title game since Kentucky won the championship in 1978.
Arkansas wore down thinner Arizona and its superb guard tandem of Khalid Reeves and Damon Stoudamire with some late full-court pressure and its own versatility at the offensive end, where it scored on 13 of 14 possessions from the 8:42 mark to the 2:38 mark. When it couldn't score in transition or off the press, Arkansas spread the floor, got the ball to sophomore forward Corliss Williamson, and watched the Wildcats wither and die.
"We can play anyway we have too," said Nolan Richardson, the Arkansas boss who feels his coaching talents are as unappreciated as much as the talents of his own players are appreciated.
"Everyone's waiting for Forty Minutes of Hell, but that was eight minutes of torture [for Arizona]," Richardson said. "Our whole system revolves around making runs. It's always in the back of your mind, when will it come? All it takes is one steal, one shot, one great dunk, that one big play that will change the complexion of the game."
Richardson said that the trigger was the three-pointer by beefy forward Dwight Stewart with 7:15 to play -- the Razorbacks' first from long distance in 17:53 -- that put Arkansas on top for good at 68-67, but Williamson had big steals, big assists and big
rebounds down the stretch.
In a game that included a Final Four record 56 three-point attempts, the difference came inside in the person of the Big Nasty. Williamson put in his two cents in the year of the forward with game-high totals of 29 points and 13 rebounds, five assists and two steals.
"He [Williamson] might not be the best player in the country," Richardson said, "but pound for pound, he's the best power forward in the country."
The SEC Player of the Year got the Arkansas run going with a subtle defensive play, then made some smart offensive decisions.
Stewart's free throw with 8:02 left began the decisive 12-0 run that lasted 2:04. When he missed the second, Arizona center Joseph Blair rebounded. Williamson jumped up on him, however, and Blair walked.
Seven seconds later, Williamson fed sophomore swingman Scotty Thurman for a lay-in. After Stewart's three-pointer, Williamson smelled out a telegraphed pass into the press by Stoudamire and took the steal in for an uncontested dunk. Williamson didn't have another basket, but he kept finding a double-team in the low post and open cutters, as his third assist in four minutes made it 84-75 with 2:38 to play.
"You have to step up like that if you want to be considered among the best players in the country," said Williamson, who in eight NCAA tournament games has a record field-goal percentage of .711 (64 of 90).
"The single biggest problem we had was that Williamson was just too tough," said Arizona coach Lute Olson, who fell to 0-3 in NCAA semifinals. "He did a great job of finding the open people. He's so smart. You double-team him, and most guys lose their poise, but he doesn't.
"They [Arkansas] also did a great job guarding our guys when we penetrated into the paint."
Despite the combined 11-of-43 shooting of Reeves and Stoudamire, Arizona was in control until Reeves got his fourth foul with 8:42 left. He was charged with bumping Corey Beck, the Arkansas point guard who had returned two minutes earlier after missing more than five minutes.
Arkansas had a 46-45 lead when Beck sat down with 17:38 to go. Arizona went on a 14-6 spurt in his absence, and stayed in control until Reeves went out. When Reeves returned two minutes later, the Arkansas run was at 8-0 and . . . running.
The Razorbacks took command early with an 11-0 roll that featured three straight three-pointers. Later, a 30-footer by Al Dillard from the right wing had them up 35-24 with 7:10 to go in the first half, but the Wildcats finished it with a 13-2 run capped by a three-pointer at the buzzer by Stoudamire, who had missed his first 10 shots.
Arizona had limited its opponents to .329 percent shooting in its four victories in the West Region, but Arkansas finished at .457 despite missing 10 of 11 three-pointers in the second half.
Thurman didn't have a three for only the second time this season, but he waited for Arizona defensive ace Reggie Geary to tire and had 12 of his 14 points in the second half. Freshman center Darnell Robinson and reserve guard Clint McDaniel had 12 apiece.
With Reeves (20 points) and Stoudamire (16) facing pressure they didn't come across out west, Arizona got a lift from sophomore forward Corey Williams, who had a season-high 14 points on four three-pointers.