Perhaps now, say the Arkansas Razorbacks, they have silenced tho
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Perhaps now, say the Arkansas Razorbacks, they have silenced those critics who saw their first three games in the NCAA tournament and wrote off Arkansas’ chances to repeat as national champions.
A 68-61 victory over Virginia in the Midwest Regional final showed that the second-seeded Razorbacks are just fine, thank you, and still a threat to win consecutive championships.
They held Virginia to a season-low 33.9 percent shooting. They outrebounded a team that had gotten this far by outrebounding its opponents. And they played outstanding defense, whether in the halfcourt or pressing and trapping, as they did in taking over the game down the stretch.
It was markedly different than the previous tournament games _ a one-point victory over Texas Southern and two straight overtime wins.
``I’m proud of the fact there’s a lot of doubt taken out of the fans and a lot of the peoples’ minds,″ coach Nolan Richardson said. ``We did what we had to do, scratched and clawed.″
No. 4 seed Virginia (25-8) was supposed to be the scratchers and clawers. The Cavaliers overcame size disadvantages all season by outrebounding opponents and playing terrific defense.
But Arkansas (31-6) was better at both on Sunday. The Razorbacks were content to play a zone during most of the first half, then in the second half gradually applied more and more pressure.
``They do a good job of pressuring and speeding you up when you don’t want to,″ said Virginia’s Junior Burrough. ``They have a reckless abandon for the ball, a tenacity you can’t really teach. It’s just in the heart of every member of their basketball team.
``Sooner or later, the way they play basketball is going to overwhelm you.″
That happened to Virginia in the final six minutes. Despite being made to hurry some shots and play a little more quickly than they would have liked, the Cavaliers only trailed 48-46 with 5:47 remaining.
Then Corliss Williamson, who finished with 21 points and nine rebounds, got the ball inside on two straight possessions, and both times he was fouled. He made three of four free throws.
Burrough kept Virginia close with a put-back that made it 51-48. But then came a 3-pointer by Scotty Thurman, and on the next possession Williamson dove after a loose ball after a Virginia miss, came up with the ball and called timeout before getting tied up.
Arkansas scored after the timeout to widen the lead to eight, and after one Virginia free throw, the Razorbacks scored six in a row from the foul line to put the game out of reach.
``They got down and did the dirty work, made some shots and they won,″ Burrough said.
Virginia coach Jeff Jones wanted to make Arkansas have to earn its points, and for the most part the Cavaliers were successful. The difference, he said, was Arkansas’ defense, its depth and its free throw shooting in the clutch.
The Razorbacks only led 27-25 at halftime, but Richardson said he wasn’t concerned about the way the game was unfolding.
``I want to dictate tempo, yes, but I don’t care what the score is,″ he said. ``They were able to dictate tempo because we weren’t able to make baskets to get into our press. In the second half, we scored 41 points.″
And as a result, the Razorbacks are on the way to the Final Four for the sixth time in school history and third time this decade.
The doubts about Arkansas started in the season opener, when Massachusetts beat the Razorbacks by 24. A stretch of four losses in 10 games from early January to early February raised more suspicions.
Then Arkansas let a big lead slip away in a loss to Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference championship game. The Razorbacks followed that with their three tight fits in this tournament.
``Last year it seemed to come a lot easier,″ Williamson said. ``This year has been a lot bumpier, but we’ve kept on going like a four-wheel drive and now we are on top of the mountain _ or almost on top of the mountain.″