Rekindling Hog fever

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

I grew up as a die-hard Arkansas Razorbacks fan ó especially when it came to Arkansas basketball.

My parents werenít sports fans, so I didnít get introduced to sports as early as a lot of my peers. I had to discover them for myself, which happened around the time I was 10 years old.

Once I did, though, I was hooked. I became a huge baseball fan first, but then one night I saw a late-night replay of an Arkansas basketball game at Barnhill Arena. Those were the days of Scott Hastings, Darrell Walker, Tony Brown, Keith Peterson. U.S. Reed had graduated by then, and Alvin Robertson wasnít yet on the team. Those late-night replays became a staple for me, and most of the time my mom let me stay up to watch. Eventually, she figured out that I loved the Razorbacks so much that grounding me from watching the games was a particularly effective punishment/deterrent.

I remember a lot of great Razorback games from those years. Some of my favorites were when Robertson and Joe Kleine led the Razorbacks against Akeem (later Hakeem) Olajuwon and the Houston Cougars. Houston had one of the greatest three-year runs in college basketball history, but Arkansas held its own against its Southwest Conference rival.

Probably my biggest basketball memory from those years, though, is Arkansasí game against North Carolina in February 1984. The Tar Heels were the top-ranked team in the country, led by Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins. But that was Arkansasí day. I vividly remember watching the game in the den of my auntís house in Stuttgart, and how excited I was when Charles Balentine scored the game-winning basket with just a few seconds left.

Less than six years later, I actually covered a Razorbacks game in the same building, the Pine Bluff Convention Center. It was a nonconference game against Samford, completely devoid of any suspense. Still it was pretty exciting for a 20-year-old sports editor covering his first major college game. I was also glad that Nolan Richardson didnít notice me accidentally open the locker room door in the middle of his postgame talk. I canít remember what I was looking for, but it certainly wasnít the UA locker room.

It wasnít long after that when I went to work on the sports desk for the statewide newspaper, and my enthusiasm for all things Razorback began to wane. Part of that was a need to maintain some objectivity as a journalist. Another part of it was becoming jaded through answering a thousand phone calls from irrational Razorback fans every day. The biggest factor, though, was the things that Richardson did and said. I still believe he is the best basketball coach the Razorbacks have ever had, and I loved the way his teams played. But I couldnít abide the way he acted off the court. I was happy when Richardsonís Razorbacks won the national championship in 1994, but not the way I would have been a few years earlier. It wasnít the same.

Since leaving the statewide paper and switching from writing and editing sports stories to the news side, Iíve gradually regained some of my enthusiasm for the Razorbacks. I have to admit I didnít see much of this yearís team until the SEC Tournament, but I did watch the last few games.

On Sunday, I settled into my recliner expecting to see North Carolina run the Razorbacks out of the gym. And early in the game, it looked as if that would be the case. But then the Razorbacks mounted a comeback, and a 17-point deficit shrank to five by halftime.

I found myself pulling hard for Arkansas to pull it off, and the Razorbacks were in prime position to do that. Arkansas controlled most of the second half and had a five-point lead with three minutes to go. Junior guard Daryl Macon was the catalyst, scoring a game-high 19 points.

But in the final three minutes, Arkansas collapsed. The officiating didnít help: How was there not some sort of call on the controversial play involving Joel Berry II? Either he traveled or a block or charge occurred. Thereís no way that kind of contact didnít merit some kind of call. Instead, Berry threw up a shot that missed and North Carolina scored a huge basket after an offensive rebound.

More importantly, though, Arkansas botched its final few possessions. The Razorbacks made bad decisions, forced awful shots and failed to move the basketball. Maybe most importantly of all, they didnít get the ball to the man with the hot hand ó Macon.

It was a tough game to lose. But as one of my friends remarked, itís also the kind of game that could be a building block for future success.

I hope so. Iíll be watching.

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Scott Loftis is managing editor for Carroll County Newspapers. His email address is CarrollCountyNews@cox-internet.com.