The Razorbacks, who rolled to their first title a year ago, had their fourth close call of this NCAA tournament last night, as they blew most of an 11-point lead in the last three minutes but held on to beat the Tar Heels, 75-68, before 38,450 at the Kingdome.
"We're going back," Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson said to no one in particular as he walked off the floor.
Arkansas (32-6) can become only the second repeat champion in 22 years tomorrow when it meets UCLA in the title game. The outcome left the Atlantic Coast Conference without a team in the championship game for the first time in six years.
It was the second straight victory over an ACC co-champion for the Razorbacks, who beat Virginia in the Midwest Regional final. Arkansas avoided its third overtime game of the tournament, as North Carolina had two chances to tie in the last 50 seconds.
Ahead 69-58 with 3:34 to go, Arkansas let North Carolina (28-6) back in the game by going more than three minutes without a point, but that drought was nothing compared to what the Tar Heels went through.
When Jerry Stackhouse nailed a three-pointer from the left wing with 15:15 to go, the Tar Heels went ahead 50-49, but it was their last lead and their last basket for more than 12 minutes, until Williams' three with 2:37 to go led a 9-0 run that reminded everyone that no lead is too big against a team coached by Dean Smith, who was denied his sixth trip to the title game.
"I think [North Carolina] kind of got fatigued down the stretch because they started missing free throws and their jump shots weren't falling as well as they did in the first half," said Razorback forward Scotty Thurman.
Arkansas needed four free throws by Clint McDaniel in the final DTC 27.5 seconds to secure the win and avenge its only NCAA tournament loss since 1992. North Carolina beat the Razorbacks en route to the 1993 title.
"It felt great to get revenge for our freshman year," said Corliss Williamson, with Thurman the other half of Arkansas' stellar junior forward combination.
McDaniel's free throws were made necessary by consecutive failures at the line in the bonus situation by Dwight Stewart, but Arkansas was nonetheless delighted with the play of its portly 6-foot-9, 265-pound senior, who kept Arkansas going in the first half, when Williamson, aka The Big Nasty, was limited to a single basket.
Williamson came alive for 19 of his game-high 21 points and seven of his 10 rebounds in the second half, when he made nine of his 12 field goal attempts.
Stewart was the main reason the Arkansas bench outscored North Carolina's 27-6. Stewart had 10 of his 15 points in the first half, when the rest of the Razorbacks shot a dismal 8-for-34 (23.6 percent). Stewart, who barely jumps, gave Arkansas a big lift when he heaved in a 50-footer that just beat the halftime buzzer.
After a turnover by Williamson with 3.6 seconds to go in the half, Pat Sullivan attempted a length-of-the-court pass to Wallace, who was muscled away from the ball by Stewart. The ball bounced in the Tar Heel lane, off the backboard and to the Razorbacks' Davor Rimac, who flipped it to Stewart. He pushed it just the right distance.
Despite that shot, North Carolina still had a 38-34 halftime lead. Williams, who had 13 of his 19 points in the first half, and the other Tar Heel shooters were running to open spots, giving the dribbler some good options and hitting often enough to lead by as many as seven points, at 35-28.
North Carolina, however, was visibly rattled by Arkansas' relentless pressure in the second half, when it took just 24 shots and made only six. The Razorbacks limited the opportunities for Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse, the Tar Heels' sophomore All-Americans who combined for only 13 shots.
"We had a stretch where we went a little cold," Stackhouse said, "but toward the end of the game we started to get in a rhythm and our defense picked up. We were just a little unlucky at the end.
Down 69-58, Stackhouse got a 9-0 run going for the Tar Heels with a pair of free throws. With 2:37 to go, Williams nailed a three-pointer, his team's first basket in 12:38. North Carolina closed to within 69-66 on a free throw by Jeff McInnis and a dunk by Stackhouse with 1:45 to go.
Stackhouse had a chance to tie with 47.7 seconds left, but he could make only one of two free throws. With 10 seconds left on the shot clock, Dante Calabria fouled McDaniel, who made two free throws with 27.5 seconds left. Williams then missed a three-pointer from the top of the key with nine seconds left.
"Jerry set a good screen for me," Williams said. "That's one of my favorite spots on the floor. I thought it felt good."
North Carolina felt better early because of some zone looks that frustrated Williamson, who was limited to five shots and a single basket in the first half.
The Tar Heels went man in the second half, and Williamson announced his intentions early, when he posted up on Wallace with 70 seconds gone.
North Carolina still had a 46-41 lead after the only basket of the game by Calabria -- he missed his other nine attempts -- with 17:55 to go, but Williamson was just getting loosened up.
He posted up Wallace for a three-point play. After Stewart hit from the left baseline and Thurman's three from the left wing got the Razorbacks a 47-47 tie, Williamson put back a miss by Corey Beck with 16:01 left.
The 12 three-pointers by Arkansas -- eight in the first half -- were the second-highest total in Final Four history.
"The thing that was bad for us is that half our shots were threes," said Richardson, whose team assumes the unfamiliar role of underdog against the No. 1-ranked Bruins tomorrow night. "When we got a 10-point lead, we stopped attacking."
HOW THEY GOT HERE
How Arkansas and UCLA reached the NCAA tournament championship game:
Date ... Opponent ....... Score
3-17 ... Tx. Southern ... 79-78
3-19 ... Syracuse ....... 96-94*
3-24 ... Memphis ........ 96-91*
3-26 ... Virginia ....... 68-61
4-1 .... North Carolina.. 75-68
Date ... Opponent ...... ...... Score
3-16 ... Fla. International ... 92-56
3-18 ... Missouri ....... ..... 75-74
3-23 ... Miss. St. ...... ..... 86-67
3-25 ... Connecticut .... .... 102-96
4-1 .... Oklahoma State........ 74-61
* -- overtime