CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- He came.
With their First Fan, Bill Clinton, looking on from a sky box at the Charlotte Coliseum, the Arkansas Razorbacks beat Duke last night at its own game -- the NCAA final -- to win this year's national championship.
After overcoming a 10-point deficit early in the second half, and ,, nearly letting a five-point lead slip away, the Razorbacks broke a tie on a three-pointer by sophomore guard Scotty Thurman with 50.7 seconds left and went on to beat the Blue Devils, 76-72.
A rushed three-pointer by another sophomore guard, Duke's Chris Collins, opened the door for Arkansas (31-3), but the Razorbacks didn't close it completely until Clint McDaniel hit the second of two free throws with nine reconds left to give Arkansas its first national basketball championship.
"Tonight was like a battle of heavyweights," said Razorbacks coach Nolan Richardson, whose team was visited by Clinton for a closed locker room celebration after the game. "I am so proud of the young men who have come up here tonight and how they handled themselves after being down 10 points."
Sophomore Corliss Williamson sparked the Arkansas comeback. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound forward, voted the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, finished with 23 points and had eight rebounds in leading Arkansas to the first national championship by a Southeastern Conference team since Kentucky beat Duke in 1978. Thurman and point guard Corey Beck each scored 15, with Beck adding 10 rebounds and four assists.
Duke All-American Grant Hill, whose three-pointer tied the game at 70 with 1:26 left, was held to 12 points on four-of-11 shooting. Hill also had 14 rebounds. But after falling on his tailbone in the first minute, and facing double-teams the rest of the night, Hill tired down the stretch, committing several of his game-high nine turnovers.
The victory might have given Richardson and the Razorbacks the respect they believe has eluded them this season. They did it by playing Duke's half-court game, and doing a little better than the Blue Devils. And Richardson did it by beating Mike Krzyzewski, whom many consider the John Wooden of his generation.
"From an athletic standpoint, it's the greatest feeling I've ever had," said Richardson, 52, the first black coach to win an NCAA championship since Georgetown's John Thompson did it a decade ago. "Hopefully this will do something for the people who come behind me and want to be coaches."
Said Krzyzewski: "I'm so proud of our basketball team. They played with tremendous heart against a fabulous Arkansas team. I thought they wore us down a little bit in the second half, but we came back and put ourselves in position to win at the end. It was a game that somebody won and nobody lost."
It was a game that nearly got away from the Razorbacks before Richardson called the biggest timeout of his coaching career. It came after Duke (28-6) used a 13-0 run to take a 48-38 lead with xTC a little more than 17 minutes remaining. But Arkansas responded by scoring 16 of the game's next 20 points, and 21 of the next 27, to lead 59-54 with 8:08 to go.
With Duke still trailing 62-57 with a little under six minutes left, Collins nailed back-to-back threes to put the Blue Devils ahead, 63-62, with five minutes to go. The Razorbacks went back ahead on two free throws by Beck, and extended it to 67-65 on a free throw by Williamson. It went back and forth until Hill, after four straight misses, tied the game at 70 with his three.
"Great teams in great games are going to have spurts," said Hill. "We had one, but we knew that Arkansas was going to come back. They executed and went to their main inside guys. We did a good job for most of the night, but we couldn't contain them the whole night."
It appeared that Duke had stopped Arkansas after Richardson had called timeout with 1:15 left to set up the play that ended up with Thurman's three. As the clock wore down, Razorbacks forward Dwight Stewart fumbled the ball at the top of the key and shoveled it to Thurman. With one second showing on the 35-second clock, and 6-8 Antonio Lang flying at him with his arms raised, Thurman fired in a 23-footer.
The shot -- "a big-time shot," Lang called it -- brought back memories of the shot Michael Jordan made to help North Carolina beat Georgetown in 1982, the shot that Keith Smart of Indiana made to help beat Syracuse in 1987. It was a shot that gave Richardson a confident feeling. "After that shot," he said later, "I felt we would control the game."
Said Thurman: "When I play, I don't want to miss three in a row. I had missed my last two shots. I knew it was going in."
As the teams went back downcourt, Thurman yelled at the pro-Duke crowd that suddenly grew silent, "That surprised you, didn't it?" But the biggest surprise was yet to come: Collins, who had made his two previous threes and four of his first seven, fired up a quick three with only 15 seconds off the 35-second clock, and 35 seconds left in the game.
"It was a tough shot," said Krzyzewski. "Chris hit shots like that all night. I wouldn't say that one made shot or missed shot won or lost the game. They had a little more firepower than we did."
Said Collins, whose 22-footer rattled the rim, "It was best feeling shot I had all night."
When it missed, it gave the Razorbacks and their raucous fans -- Clinton included -- the best feeling they've had in a while. But it took a few more anxious moments before McDaniel, after missing the first of two free throws and Arkansas holding a three-point lead, hit his second to nail shut the title.
"As soon as the ball settled into the net, I knew we had won the game," said McDaniel. "I knew we had won the championship."
The celebration started with the Razorbacks dancing on the court, and then on the stage as they accepted their trophy. It continued in their locker room, where an emotional Clinton hugged Richardson and a few of the players.
"The president's reaction was one of pride," Richardson said later. "The president is from a small state and the Razorbacks are his pride and joy. That's the reason he was teary-eyed. Something great had happened to his state."
Asked by an AP pool reporter if his heart was jumping, Clinton said, "The whole time."
Arkansas jumped last night. Right to the top of the college basketball world.