Hogs Sit At Crossroads After Epic Battle

Of the 700 or so University of Arkansas men's basketball games I've seen in person since age six (beginning with SMU-UA in the old Men's Gym in 1954), Saturday's Kentucky-Arkansas clash was one of the most gripping.

The best part of "Kentucky 68, Arkansas 67" was the packed house and the return of 1994 noise levels in Bud Walton Arena.

One of the biggest roars came with 15 minutes, 4 seconds left in the first half when 6-foot-7 Arkansas freshman forward Charles Thomas took a charge against 6-6 Kentucky senior forward Chuck Hayes.

So good was Thomas' play that he ended up flat on his back, with Hayes draped over him. Hayes accepted the call with quiet dignity and went to the bench with his second foul, while 20,268 fans cheered the play's significance with the same knowledge and fervor that Kentucky's fans are famed for.

Thomas took a second charge later in the first half of a game in which he had four rebounds but continued to struggle offensively (0-of-5 from the field, plus a missed one-and-one).

The game sizzled with scintillating plays, each one magnified because it was Kentucky vs. Arkansas.

Little Patrick Sparks, the not-quite 6-foot Kentucky guard from the small town of Central City, Ky. (not far from Hartford, where my dad preached as a young seminary student), was worth the price of admission by himself.

At one point, a supercharged Sparks yelled to a ref after a no-call, "Come on, Baby!"

With Kentucky leading just 23-22, Sparks personally rearranged the molecules with a great steal leading to a Kelenna Azubuike slam, and then a defensive rebound and no-look, fast-break pass to Rajon Rondo for a 27-22 UK edge -- all in a span of 40 seconds.

Kentucky fans were again happy that Sparks had decided to transfer from Western Kentucky.

Arkansas battled back to take a 33-32 lead at halftime, causing Kentucky coach Tubby Smith to wipe his forehead with a handkerchief as he walked to the locker room.

CBS technicians congratulated themselves for working what they knew was an audience-keeping telecast.

George Raveling, the former Iowa and Southern Cal coach who had twice entertained UA fans at basketball banquets, was enjoying this game as an employee of Nike. He had been on hand since Friday. During the game, from his media-table seat near UA football coach Houston Nutt and former Hogs basketball star Almer Lee, Raveling took notes in red ink.

The Wildcats returned to the court and quickly went about improving their record to 3-0 in Southeastern Conference games in which they trailed at halftime this season.

They took a 40-37 lead, causing UA coach Stan Heath to call a 30-second timeout he later would have liked to have saved.

The Hogs clawed back to 46-all before Ronnie Brewer left with a twisted ankle. When Brewer returned after 2:27 on the bench, Arkansas trailed 55-50. (That's Kentucky 9, Arkansas 4 with Brewer on the bench.)

With the Hogs trailing 62-55 with 3:55 left, five front-row fans left the arena, apparently with a plane to catch. I wondered if they paused when they heard the roar for Darian Townes' dunk that made it 62-57 with 3:32 to go.

For too long, many UA fans have gone into games like Saturday's expecting to lose. You can sense it when, even after all the noise, the arena goes quiet after a scoring lull, or when the shot clock goes under 10 seconds and the shrieking begins.

The Wildcats, who probably sensed that uncertainty on the other side, were the calmer team down the stretch.

Still, Arkansas came within one play of winning and now sits at a crossroads.

The Razorbacks can lick their wounds and lose at South Carolina and Ole Miss this week, or use the confidence from Saturday's worthy effort to do something about their 12-game SEC road losing streak.

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