KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Virginia wasn't the only team capable of winning ugly in the Midwest Regional.
After their defense-oriented upset of top-seeded Kansas on Friday night, the Cavaliers thought they had cornered the market on physical play at Kemper Arena. They proudly spoke about their toughness, and how they didn't get the credit prettier teams did.
There's nothing in college basketball as physical, however, as Corliss Williamson, Scotty Thurman and the rest of Arkansas when the Razorbacks are but three wins away from their second straight NCAA championship. Virginia made that discovery yesterday, when Arkansas out-uglied the Cavaliers for a 68-61 victory in the Midwest final.
"We looked like the Razorbacks of yesteryear," said Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. "We got on a roll and our defense took over the game. We did what we had to do, clawed and scratched."
Arkansas (31-6) will meet North Carolina on Saturday in Seattle in a national semifinal that matches the past two NCAA titlists. Call it Tar Heels style vs. Razorbacks grit.
You want ugly?
Arkansas had four points after nine minutes, missed 14 of its first 17 shots, opened with its lowest scoring half of the season, and didn't get a basket from its starting backcourt until the 37th minute. The Razorbacks nonetheless had the easiest game of what had been a precarious run through the Midwest because of their defense, which limited Virginia to a season-low 33.9 percent shooting.
When Junior Burrough got the ball down low, it looked like spring football practice had started. President Clinton, who did not show up to watch his favorite team, was the only Arkansan who didn't hassle Harold Deane.
The Virginia catalyst made only four of 16 shots and had six turnovers, as the Razorbacks dared him to dribble through their press. Deane missed two free throws that would have tied it with 9:51 to go -- his team was a shaky 17 of 28 at the line -- but wouldn't admit that fatigue had anything to do with those misses and plenty others by the Cavaliers on some open jumpers.
Senior center Burrough, older and wiser, had other ideas.
"I don't think we gave into it [the Arkansas defense]," Burrough said, "but sooner or later, it overwhelms you."
Actually, fourth-seeded Virginia (25-9) did an admirable job controlling the tempo in the first half, as the the Cavaliers' negated any full-court pressure early by limiting Arkansas to two baskets in the first 10 minutes. Virginia went more than eight minutes in the half without a basket.
Five minutes into the second half, Virginia, after a 10-2 run, had the biggest lead of the game to that point, 35-29, but the Razorbacks were unfazed after needing overtime in their past two games.
Virginia came up empty-handed on four straight possessions, and Davor Rimac's three-pointer from the top of the key put Arkansas on top for good at 41-39 with 10:09 to go.
After facing a vanilla 2-2-1 press in the first half, the Cavaliers were staring at what Richardson calls his "scramble" defense, which can't be combated by a clipboard and a marking pen. Deane said Arkansas doesn't play good position defense, and that's exactly the point.
"You can't call timeout and draw up spots where to put players against that," Richardson said, "because we don't know where our own players are going to be."
The second-seeded Razorbacks wouldn't be in Seattle this week without the junior combination of Williamson and Thurman.
Virginia freshman Curtis Staples rushed an open three-pointer that would have tied it with seven minutes left. Three minutes later, Thurman calmly squared up and dropped in a 25-footer from out top for a 54-48 lead.
On Virginia's next possession, Williamson dived on the floor for a loose ball and called a timeout before the Cavaliers could force a held ball. Arkansas then spread the floor and Williamson fed point guard Corey Beck for a 56-48 spread with 3:41 left, and Virginia's plans to make it two No. 4 seeds in the Final Four were finished.
Williamson, the bullish forward who was named the Most Outstanding Player in the Midwest Regional, then stepped outside for several 15-foot jumpers en route to 21 points and nine rebounds.
Thurman had 17 points and eight rebounds. Take away Lee Wilson's two baskets, and the rest of the Razorbacks shot 6-for-27 from the field, but Arkansas was a cool 17-for-21 at the free-throw line, its second-best performance of the season.
"Their offense wasn't the deciding factor," Virginia coach Jeff Jones said. "It was their defense and their depth and free-throw shooting down the stretch."
Burrough had a game-high 22 points and 16 rebounds, but Arkansas limited his opportunities at the end of each half. Staples had 16 points, and Deane worked for every one of his 12.
It all made for a relieved Arkansas team.
"It's a better feeling going the second time around," said Richardson, who returned every starter from the team that beat Duke in last year's NCAA final.
"I was happy last year, but I knew we had a lot of work to do this year because of all the expectations. Had we not gotten back to the Final Four, I would have been more disappointed than anyone."