AUSTIN, Texas -- The NCAA men's basketball tournament bracket, a tenuously constructed thing to begin with, was shaking hard yesterday.
Already missing two fourth seeds and three thirds, the bracket was about to lose a second seed and -- rattle, rattle -- a No. 1. Office pools throughout the land were about to collapse into debris piles of tiny black lines.
At the Erwin Center on the University of Texas campus, 15,375 watching a thriller between Arkansas and Syracuse were assured that the basketball sky had begun to fall: "A final score from the West Region," the public-address announcer said, pausing poignantly during a timeout, "Missouri 74, UCLA 65!"
It appeared the Midwest No. 2 Razorbacks, defending national champs, were about to go off a similar bracket cliff as the Bruins, the West's No. 1.
The Razorbacks uncharacteristically blew a 12-point second-half lead, then in the final minute threw away what might have been the game's last possession. Only a monumental brain cramp by Syracuse's star player, Lawrence Moten -- calling a timeout Syracuse didn't have -- allowed Arkansas to dig a fingernail into the precipice.
Moments later, the PA announcer corrected himself about UCLA-Missouri, Arkansas pulled itself up to force overtime and score on all seven of its OT possessions to win 96-94, and the tourney bracket stood.
Battered, certainly, but recognizable. Even serviceable. After the chaos and tumult of the first weekend, no team seeded lower than sixth is advancing to the round of 16 next weekend.
No Weber States, no Manhattans, no Heavy Equipment Operators College. Three No. 6 seeds -- Georgetown, Tulsa and Memphis -- were moving ahead, but none can be considered a hick relative that would embarrass the party.
That invitation list to the four regional finals does not, however, reflect the massive Wallenda impression that it took for many to reach safety. Nowhere was that more apparent than the Midwest sub-regional in Austin, where five of the six games were decided by four points or less.
And in no team were the sweat rings more pronounced than Arkansas, the haughty champs who returned all starters from a year ago. After barely surviving 15th-seeded and lightly regarded Texas Southern 79-78 Friday, the Razorbacks escaped No. 7 Syracuse in ways that will cause all of upstate New York to mutter for years.
"It could have gone either way," said Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson for the second straight game. "We should have put it away earlier, and didn't. They should have put it away late, and didn't."
The way Syracuse didn't put it away might suggest that the Razorbacks are a team of fate, destined to conquer Seattle in a couple of weeks. On the other hand, it could be argued that Arkansas used up all the luck available in this quadrant of the galaxy and would be wise to pass on the lottery and any mail
from Ed McMahon.
The Razorbacks trailed 82-81 and had the ball out of bounds under their basket with 6.5 seconds left. But Syracuse's defense slapped the inbounds pass away, and a scramble ensued that tied up the ball on the floor. Syracuse had the possession arrow in its favor. But wait.
An official saw Moten, a senior guard and the Big East's career leading scorer, signaling for a timeout and granted it, even though a) Syracuse had no timeouts and b) if a ball is possessed by neither team, no timeout can be called.
"The timeout call was irrelevant because I thought there should have been a jump ball call," exasperated Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "No one had possession."
But the timeout acknowledgement stood, producing for Arkansas with 4.3 seconds remaining two technical free throws, plus possession.
Ultimately, the freakish mistake cost Syracuse the game. The circumstance would have been even more bewildering had not an almost identical error already paved this college road two years earlier.
Chris Webber left an unforgettable welt on his otherwise sterling career when his bogus timeout call in the final seconds cost Michigan the 1993 NCAA title game in New Orleans.
Then as now, the coaches insisted players were informed that no timeouts were left. But somewhere between words and action lies the college hoops game, bristling with greatness and goofiness.
Shortly after the game, reporters were still listening for the arena's PA announcer to reverse the score of the game they had just seen, giving Syracuse the win.
Given what has already passed in this tournament, we would have bought it.
Moten, who scored 27 points, two fewer than teammate John Wallace, came to the press room with eyes and nose ruddy with tears. "As far as the timeout call," he began, "I guess, you know, I guess I thought we had one, you know." He bit his lower lip.
Boeheim interjected, "It's over with."
Syracuse and Arkansas scored on every overtime possession save the last one. The Orangemen's Michael Lloyd and Lucious Jackson missed three-point shots in the final five seconds.
When the buzzer sounded, Moten fell to the floor at the sideline, his head beneath the curtain hanging from the press table. Arkansas hero Scotty Thurman, who became friends with Moten at the Goodwill Games tryout camp in Los Angeles last summer, helped him up and hugged him.
"I told him, 'You have nothing to be ashamed of,' " Thurman said.
Long after the game ended, the paternal instinct in Boeheim rose from somewhere deep inside. The words snagged in his throat but came out rapidly, coated in emotion. Moten led the Orangemen through the years of NCAA investigation and subsequent probation in 1992-93.
"If it wasn't for him [Moten], we wouldn't have won 15 games in any of the last four years," Boeheim said. "We didn't have enough program because of what we have had to go through, We still don't have enough players. But we don't get beat by anybody. . . . We don't give up."
Boeheim picked up his equipment bag and started down the hall. "That's life. Things don't always go the way you want them to."