The defining sequence of Arkansas’ 1994 national championship run came in the final game of its season, fittingly, with “1:00” left on the clock against Duke.
Clint McDaniel passed to Corey Beck, who took two dribbles to the right baseline; star forward Corliss Williamson was too close, so Beck flipped a pass back to Dwight Stewart, a 6-9 center with a smooth touch; he bobbled Beck’s pass, but gathered control of the ball and flipped it to Scotty Thurman in the wing; Thurman splashed a rainbow 3 with just a second remaining on the shot clock and 50.7 seconds left in the game.
With that shot, Thurman broke a 70-70 tie, spurring the Razorbacks to a 76-72 victory and their first national championship. In a little less than 10 seconds, “40 Minutes of Hell” became immortalized in NCAA Tournament lore.
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But Thurman sees that shot through a different lens.
“Dwight Stewart made the most unselfish play in our program’s history,” Thurman told Sporting News. “I get the accolades and the recognition of making the shot, but had he not bobbled the ball he probably would have taken it. He probably would have made it, too.”
That unselfish answer explains how the 1993-94 Arkansas team became the most fun Southeastern Conference men’s basketball champion of all time — even if it didn’t always feel that way for the Razorbacks at that time.
Kentucky has eight national championship teams. Florida cut down the nets in 2006 and ’07. Arkansas is the only other men’s basketball team in the conference that can claim a title, won with a furious full-court style of play that had a seal of approval from President Bill Clinton, yet still sought validation for its coach from critics who couldn’t look past the billowing shorts that stretched past his players’ knees.
Coach Nolan Richardson, his unselfish cast of players — and yes, Clinton — made that unique story possible in the 1993-94 season. It all culminated when Stewart bobbled the pass and dished to Thurman.
“The fact that he had the wherewithal to not force a shot and pass the ball showed all the things Coach Richardson had been preaching to us all along,” Thurman said. “That’s to give up yourself and put the team first.”
But those lessons Richardson taught at Arkansas didn’t begin in Fayetteville.
That’s the word Richardson used to describe what he tried to instill in his players as a first-time head coach at Bowie High School in El Paso, Texas in 1968.
Richardson played for coach Don Haskins at Texas Western (now UTEP), graduating two years before the Miners won the national championship in 1966 with an all-black starting lineup. Richardson had a roster comprised of mostly Hispanic players and watched too many low-scoring losses rooted in conventional coaching.
“We couldn’t win because all my kids were so small and short,” Richardson told SN. “In order for us to have a chance to win, we had to figure out a way to get cheap baskets. When you play with ‘rabia,’ it means like a rabid dog. Everyone is going to run away from us. We must run to them. They will run from us.”
Richardson also noticed at practice that the starting lineup would beat the second team every day. He changed that, too.
“We had no starters in practice,” he said. “We intermingled every single day with different players, different combinations, I never wanted my five to hardly ever play together.”
Richardson won with that style at Bowie (1968-78) and Western Texas Junior College (1978-80), then took Tulsa to three NCAA Tournament appearances from 1980-85.
He brought that style to Arkansas in 1985. That transition was not easy.
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Richardson was among the first black head coaches in the Deep South, but he took that scrutiny head-on. He told it how he saw it and didn’t apologize. Longtime Arkansas play-by-play announcer Mike Nail remembers the first time he observed Richardson on the court at Barnhill Arena. That’s when Nail knew this would work.
“He sweated as much as the players did,” Nail said. “He was on the court at every practice and very demanding. He didn’t baby his players. They were tough. He was tough.”
Arkansas finished 12-16 in Richardson’s first year — a season in which his daughter Yvonne battled leukemia before passing away in 1987. There were major hurdles, but Richardson found success that led to a Final Four appearance in 1990. That’s when “rabia” morphed into something entirely different on both sides of the ball.
“The ’40 Minutes of Hell’ had turned into a defense and an offense,” Richardson said. “It didn’t matter where we played you, we were going to get after it. Full court, half court, three-quarter court, it doesn’t really matter. We were going to attack you on both ends. We weren’t just a defensive team. We were an offensive team that was going to be score points.”
That transition happened while the program’s Southwest Conference credentials were questioned when the Razorbacks joined the SEC in 1991.
Todd Day, Oliver Miller and Lee Mayberry were the key pieces who led Arkansas to that Final Four appearance in 1990, a trip to Denver that ended with a 97-83 loss to Duke. The next year, that group closed the final season in the Southwest Conference with an Elite Eight appearance.
Williamson — a 6-7 native of Russellville, Ark. — saw their development and wanted to be a part of it.
“When Coach Richardson came in, I was starting to flourish as a young kid in basketball,” Williamson told SN. “His style of play kind of fit with how the grassroots AAU teams were playing in Arkansas.”
Williamson graduated from Russellville High School (Russellville, Ark.) on a Saturday and was on Arkansas’ campus the next day. Thurman arrived nine days later. The sophomore trio of Beck, McDaniel and Stewart were trying to prove themselves on that 1992-93 team.
Corey Beck (left), Corliss Williamson (center) and Clint McDaniel (right) celebrate after beating Duke 76-72 (Getty Images).
“Some of it wasn’t always pretty,” Thurman said. “There would be arguments. There would be confrontations. They were challenging us, sometimes getting the better of us. We had a chance to go through some adverse situations where it wasn’t about a win or loss. It was about pride.”
And yet, they still weren’t quite ready for Richardson, who had an expectation for his players.
“When we got on the floor we knew — we knew — we could push anybody to the point of no return,” Richardson said, before doubling down on that phrase with emphasis. “The point of no return. That’s what our team was about. Not just press and push you. We’re going to attack boards. We’re going to have deflections. When you go out and play for me you better be angry because when I walk in the gym, I am angry.”
That “40 Minutes of Hell” philosophy built up in practice, one minute at a time. Richardson mixed up the first, second and third teams. Beck remembers the five- and 10-minute segments most.
“It was five minutes and it was fun,” Beck said. “No fouls unless it was egregious on the court. Nonstop press, score, turn around and pick up full court. Sometimes press. Sometimes man-to-man. Always help-side defense. It went from five to 10 minutes straight. No subs. That’s tough.”
By then, the players knew what Richardson was doing.
“It was about being tough and playing through fouls and other things that might happen in a game,” Williamson said. “Coach Richardson always said the practices are going to be harder than the games. Games should be fun. Practices are going to be hard.”
They saw — everyone saw — the end product on the court.
“If you run 40 minutes of basketball and it’s pressure, pressure, pressure, most teams that are playing seven or eight guys,” Beck said. “By the middle of the second half you’re going to get winded. Things change.”
“The way we saw it is the other team had to pay for that,” Thurman added. “It would be funny. Guys would be at the free throw line after just a couple trips, and they’re huffing and puffing. We’d look around like, ‘These guys are tired?'”
The Razorbacks finished 22-9 and reached the Sweet 16 in 1992-93 before losing 80-74 to eventual national champion North Carolina. Arkansas was good, but hardly considered among the nation’s elite.
By the 1993-94 season, they were ready for something more.
“We got beat on the boards so bad against Carolina, and we felt like we just needed a few other big guys,” Thurman said. “We would always be on Coach, ‘We need some bigger guys! We need some bigger guys!’ He went out and got Darnell Robinson and Lee Wilson. For us, that was the ultimate sign of confidence.”
Robinson, 6-11, provided that size at center. Williams, Beck, Thurman and Stewart were part of a solid core that also included guard McDaniel, Roger Crawford and 3-point specialist Alex Dillard, whose range was so far that Richardson used to simply say, “All we have to do is get him in the gym.”
Wilson, Davor Rimac, Ray Biggers and Elmer Martin combined to keep more than 1,000 minutes off the bench. Ken Biley, John Engskov and Reggie Merritt were ready at any time. This was a 15-deep team with a simple philosophy.
“Give me one minute, give me two minutes, three minutes,” Richardson said. “I don’t care how many minutes you can give me but give me those minutes as hard as you can.”
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Imagine that approach with playing time today.
“You can talk about how we shared the ball, but we shared our minutes well, too,” Williamson said. “You look at how the minutes were dispersed, no one played a high level of minutes with the way we played. It could have been a situation where we could have had players want more minutes, more touches. We understood what it took to win.”
Arkansas set the SEC record for points that year and averaged 93.4 points per game (for reference, a college basketball team has not averaged more than 90 points per game in a season since VMI finished with 90.2 points per game in 2008-09). Eight players averaged at least seven points per game.
“There was nobody that had to get up 15 or 16 shots a game,” Beck said. “There was not one person on our team who wanted to average 20. It was whoever was hot. That’s who we would get the ball to that night. We got the selfish thing out of the way early.”
It showed in Arkansas’ second home game that season, when the No. 3 Razorbacks took on Missouri. It was a spectacle that still stands out to associate athletic director Kevin Trainor, then a senior in Arkansas’ sports information department.
“Everything that team had to offer showed up in one night and it wasn’t just an average team they were playing against,” Trainor said. “It was the first sign that this team could be as good if not better than any team in the country.”
The Razorbacks routed the Tigers 120-68. They were ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll the following week. Arkansas scored 90 or more points in its first nine games. Dillard hit 12 3-pointers in a 123-66 win against Delaware State, including a few Trainor said were from “the tail of the slobbering hog” near half court. The Razorbacks spent the entire month of December at No. 1, and that attracted national attention from the White House.
Clinton, who was the governor of Arkansas when Richardson was hired, attended a few home games during the regular season (Nail remembers the band being forced to leave the instruments in the arena the night before games). Yet no team attracted more attention, and no team had that much fun with it.
“There were no prima donnas on that team,” Nail said. “They got along with everybody and they had a great relationship with the media. Anybody. Everybody. You see players today who don’t want to talk to you or avoid the press. This team didn’t have that. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I did close to 1,000 games as the play-by-play guy.
“But the unsung heroes of that year were the fans,” Nail continued. “This team had a relationship with the fans and vice versa that I’ve never seen before or since.”
Arkansas fell from No. 1 after a Jan. 8 loss to unranked Alabama, but still had the spotlight with a blockbuster, top-five matchup against No. 3 Kentucky at Rupp Arena in February. The Wildcats were the more popular SEC brand. They had Rick Pitino, Travis Ford, Tony Delk and a full-court pressure style of their own. Kentucky led 47-41 at halftime and by double-digits at various points in the game. The Razorbacks, however, pulled away in the second half. Thurman scored 26 and Williamson added 21 in a 90-82 victory. Thurman danced in the locker room.
Richardson didn’t treat it as a landmark victory. This was the next step.
“After every ball game, every ball game, I always said at midnight the game we just won or just lost was over,” Richardson said. “That day was over. You must prepare for the next day and get ready to play. That is how we always did thing.”
Williamson remembers that being a turning point in the season. Nail remembers looking at Williamson’s hairstyle in the locker room — which had a thin line of hair around the side known as a “Nasty Streak.” Nail and Williamson made a bet. If Arkansas won the national title, then Williamson would give Nail the same haircut.
“That’s really when I thought this team has a chance to be in the Final Four and go all the way in the national championship,” Nail said. “Winning at Rupp Arena like that? That was something that really was unheard of at the time.”
Kentucky returned the favor and beat Arkansas 90-78 in the SEC Tournament, bringing up old questions: Was Arkansas just a regular-season team? Their last five tournament losses were to Louisville, Kansas, Duke, Memphis and North Carolina. The Razorbacks opened the 1994 tournament playing some of their best ball, resulting in double-digit wins against North Carolina A&T, Georgetown and Tulsa.
They had to beat somebody with the same style.
Michigan, the runner-up in the last two NCAA Tournaments, offered Arkansas that opportunity.
The Elite Eight matchup against the Wolverines offered all those elements. The Midwest Region site — Reunion Arena in Dallas, which Arkansas fans dubbed “Barnhill South” — was a venue the Razorbacks had won 12 straight in dating back to their SWC days. The Clintons were in attendance. Richardson wore a cardinal suit for the occasion.
Former President Bill Clinton in attendance at an Arkansas NCAA Tournament game (Courtesy of Arkansas Athletics).
Michigan didn’t have Chris Webber — the No. 1 pick in the 1993 NBA Draft — but the four remaining members of the Fab Five filled the starting lineup. Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson had just knocked out Maryland and future No. 1 pick Joe Smith.
“There was a lot of people nervous,” Beck said. “I wasn’t. Those are the games that if you are a basketball player you live for. The Fab Five and a team from Arkansas that nobody really knows too much about. What more can you ask for?”
Arkansas missed its first six shots, while Michigan ran with some of that vintage Fab Five passing and dunking. Richardson had a feeling his team would be fine when refs gave Howard a warning early in the game for holding the ball for an extra second after made baskets.
“I felt like we had a good chance if we could get past Michigan,” Richardson said. “There was never a reason not to play them the way we were playing. That was one of the best games we had to play.”
The Razorbacks retook control in the first half with a 20-1 run and got Howard in early foul trouble. Arkansas led 40-31 at halftime when Jim Nantz interviewed Clinton for his thoughts on the game.
“Our kids are playing well but Michigan is playing a terrific game,” Clinton said on the CBS telecast. “They’ve done a great job defensing our guys in the middle, but we’ve had the 3-point shot.”
Clinton was on point. The Razorbacks finished with 10 3-pointers in the game and weathered Michigan’s patented second-half comeback attempt for a 76-68 victory. Arkansas — and Clinton — could punch its ticket to the Final Four in Charlotte, N.C.
Richardson would go on the defensive again when he got there.
The Razorbacks beat Arizona 91-82 in the Final Four. That put Richardson in position to become just the second black men’s basketball coach to win a national championship after Georgetown’s John Thompson in 1984.
The national championship game against Duke, however, came with a prevailing theme that still angers Richardson to this day:
“The smarter team would win.”
Duke, of course, still had a few pieces from the 1991-92 national championship team, not to mention coach Mike Krzyzewski. Beck remembers Richardson harping on that all week.
“The smarter team, the smarter players and as far as I’m concerned the smarter coach,” Richardson said. “I told them all it don’t take no smarts to dunk. It don’t take no smarts to make a good pass. If I had my choice with an athlete, then I would take toughness over smartness every single time.”
“There was a lot riding on Nolan,” Trainor said. “He was representing black coaches everywhere, but beyond that it was that style of play that was also on the line. At that time, it was viewed as undisciplined, and just a bunch of athletes running up and down the court. Because there wasn’t Point A to Point B, it was marginalized.”
Richardson experimented with different lineups and played 10 different players against Duke. The Blue Devils used a 13-0 run early in the second half to take a 48-38 lead. Beck wasn’t worried: He knew what Richardson was up to. Duke ended up shooting just 11 free throws and had 23 turnovers. Arkansas simply wasn’t shooting well from the field.
“That mindset we had was 10 points was nothing,” Beck said. “If you watched that game, we missed a lot of shots. Easy shots, and Duke played a great game. (Jeff) Capel made a couple of 3s, uncontested. We knew if we played our game that there was never a worry from us. We never pointed a finger at each other.”
The Razorbacks took back the lead in a back-and-forth second half, but Grant Hill — the biggest remaining piece from those Blue Devils’ title teams — hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 1:26 remaining. That set the stage for that one-minute sequence, and Thurman’s immortal shot. Williamson saw it coming from the paint.
“I knew it had a chance,” Williamson said. “I kind of wedged myself in there in case it didn’t go in. Scotty hit so many big shots throughout his career going back to his freshman year. Any time it left his hand, we felt like it had a chance.”
Thurman perfected that shot with thousands of reps over an outstretched broom at Ruston High School (Ruston, La.). His coach, Gary Mitchell, was happy to take part in the drill, holding that broom high in the air in front of Thurman.
At first, the point of the drill escaped Thurman.
“He would always tell me he was preparing for when I was going to go to college and play basketball,” Thurman said. “I never really understood it. I thought it was kind of dumb to be honest, but it forced me — whether I was taking a runner or a jump-shot — to have a high arc on the ball, because there were going to be some high flyers that were going to contest the shot.”
Duke’s 6-8 forward Antonio Lang was that high flyer. Thurman, thanks to those thousands of reps, got the shot off over Lang’s outstretched hand.
It’s a sequence Nail can still replay with ease.
“‘Right side, Thurman. He’s open for 3 — good! Scotty Thurman with his third 3,'” Nail replayed to SN. “Somehow Thurman got that high-arching shot off — a high-arching shot — and that will go down as the greatest shot in Razorbacks’ history to this day.”
That’s saying something, considering Arkansas’ U.S. Reed made a half-court shot at the buzzer to beat defending champion Louisville in the 1981 NCAA tournament. Thurman’s shot, however, is the one that still gets the biggest cheer in Bud Walton Arena. It’s a constant reminder Thurman appreciates more than ever now that he is a coach.
“Watching so many March Madness games from when I was younger, I had an opportunity to see Keith Smart hit the game-winner against Syracuse,” Thurman recalls. “Watching Steve Alford have a great tourney run. Watching Glen Rice and his great tournament. … To just be able to say I was one of those guys in the backyard shooting a basketball not ever really knowing when that moment would come to me is amazing.”
In the aftermath of Arkansas’ victory, Trainor was tasked with getting Richardson’s wife Rose back to the locker room after the victory. Problem was, the Secret Service had already secured the perimeter for the Clintons.
“I’m sorry, you can’t go back there. The President is here,” a Secret Service agent told Trainor.
Trainor pleaded his case one more time and the agent relented. Sort of.
“She can go,” he said.
Trainor laughs about that moment now, saying, “I never made it in there, but I did my job.”
That was the MO for this Arkansas team, from the coaches, players, staff, trainers and fans. Everybody executed their role on the team under Richardson’s unrelenting style — even once the NCAA championship trophy was in hand.
“We won the national championship and I was kind of joking with them and even back then I was kind of serious, I said, ‘Have your fun and enjoy it tonight, but when the night is over. … ‘”
Richardson paused while remembering the reaction from the players.
“They were looking at me like, ‘Are you kidding? I don’t know if that’s going to happen.'”
Richardson would push the Razorbacks back to the national championship game in 1995, resetting the SEC record for points before the team fell to UCLA, 89-78. It’s a quarter-century later that Richardson thinks less about the championships that could have been, and more about the one his team did win.
That 1993-94 team celebrated its 25th anniversary reunion this year, when Arkansas played Ole Miss on March 2, a 74-73 win in Bud Walton Arena. Richardson was there too, and the memories came flooding back. Now, Richardson uses one word to describe that experience — even if it didn’t come up often at the time.
“Every day I was able to go to practice and get my team prepared was fun. It was fun,” Richardson said. “By the time we won it all, it was no different than the way I felt that we could accomplish it. It was anticlimactic. We could have won it four times, but it didn’t happen. I’m just happy that we were able to fulfill dreams of our players, myself, my assistant coaches and the fans.”
Nolan Richardson and his 1993-94 team celebrating 25th anniversary of national championship (Courtesy of Arkansas Athletics).
Williamson didn’t show much emotion on or off the court after the win over Duke, but he happily shaved a “Nasty Streak” into Nail’s head in the locker room afterward. Now, he looks back on that team with appreciation. He looks back on Clinton, who was in the locker room after the game.
Most of all, he looks back on his coach.
“Coach Richardson’s legacy, what he built at the University of Arkansas, for me growing up in Arkansas I appreciate everything he did for the program,” Williamson said. “I look forward to him having the court named after him.”
That resolution was submitted March 6, and those in Fayetteville still hold those basketball lessons. Beck runs a local custom painting business. His daughter Coriah has developed into a high school basketball star with several Division I scholarship offers. He schools her with the same lessons he learned from Richardson.
“Enjoy basketball. A lot of teams, you watch them, and some of them don’t look like they are having as much fun,” Beck said. “When you are winning, you have to have fun. We worked hard, but we enjoyed the time we spent together.”
The normally stoic Thurman remembers choking up in the locker room after looking at his teammates. Now he’s stressing that as an assistant at his alma mater under current coach Mike Anderson, himself a Richardson assistant at Arkansas.
It’s easy now to think of that Arkansas team as simply supremely talented. Thurman, however, still maintains it was all built one minute at a time.
“Nobody thought we were that good when we came in, so how is it now that we are ‘loaded?’ We’re loaded. We’re stacked. We have to a great group,” Thurman said. “You always have the opportunity to write your own narrative. For us to go out and shock the world, so to speak, it showed what a great coach we had and that you can’t put a ranking on determination, heart, teamwork and togetherness. We had that.”
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