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Mike Lopresti | | March 7, 2014

Lopresti: Thurman hits the shot

Scotty Thurman

The shot clock was just about to hit zero when the most famous 3-pointer in Arkansas history had to be taken. The game was tied, with the national championship on the line. And up in his private box, the President of the United States was watching.

Why would Scotty Thurman have been nervous?

-- Scotty Thurman
Twenty years later, he wants to make it clear there was no hesitation that night in Charlotte, N.C., in 1994.

“There wasn’t any time,” he said, “for hesitation.”

No, with 51 seconds left of a dead-even, no-blinking championship game duel between Arkansas and Duke, Thurman shot without fear or indecision from the right wing, mostly because he had to. The 1994 Final Four ended with a 76-72 Razorbacks’ victory and Thurman an Arkansas folk hero.

So how many times has he pulled out a tape of that rainbow jumper, to watch it one more time?

"I’ve never had to pull it out,” he said, “because so many other people show it.”

Thurman won a lot of games and scored a lot of points for Arkansas. He went on to play pro ball overseas. But to many, a single 3-pointer will forever frame his identity.

“I wouldn’t say it changed my life, but it probably changed my place in the hearts of Razorback fans,” he said. “It’s just amazing how many people come up to me with stories of where they were at that time, what they were doing, what they remember.

“I feel like my career was more than just one shot. However I do realize that on that stage, at that particular time and in that particular game, that was probably the most important moment in Razorback basketball history. It could always be a lot worse. If I had missed that shot, they’d think of me in other ways.”

Arkansas went into the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed with a 25-3 record, renowned for its relentless pressure defense. Nolan Richardson’s 40 Minutes of Hell. The closest win they had in the tournament before the championship game was 76-68 against the remnants of Michigan’s Fab Five in the Dallas regional. Yet, Richardson had inflamed his team with the notion it lacked national respect, hidden down there in Arkansas.

That did not apply to a certain White House in the nation’s capital, however. Former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton had gone on to a bigger job, but he had not lost Razorback fever. He followed them to Charlotte as if he were chief executive of the booster club, not the nation.

“There was a lot of excitement about the President being our No. 1 fan and following us around that year,” Thurman said. “We felt like it was us against the world. Most of the players on our team felt under-appreciated pretty much their whole high-school career. We all kind of relished that opportunity not only to play in front of the President, but to be one of the teams everyone was talking about.

-- Scotty Thurman
“We wanted to prove it was all worth it, that it wasn’t just propaganda.”

The last proof had to come against a Duke team led by Grant Hill. The Blue Devils pulled ahead by 10 points in the second half, and the Razorbacks came charging back. The Arkansas defense exacted a toll -- Duke would have 23 turnovers in the game -- and the score was tied 70-70 as the final minute began, with the Razorbacks trying to find a decent shot.

It was a frantic possession, Dwight Stewart bobbling a pass at the top of the key, as the final seconds of the shot clock began to slip away.

“I’m thinking if Dwight throws the ball to me, I’m not going to have any time to think about it,” Thurman said. “I’ve got to catch it and let it go. It just so happened he was unselfish enough to do that. Most people in that situation probably would have forced up a shot.”

Thurman had grown up in Ruston, La., going against older kids in playground games, refusing to back down as a 13-year-old trying to find his shot against 18-year-olds. So Duke’s Antonio Lang rushing out to try and defend wasn’t going to bother him. He just lofted a moon shot over Lang. It arced in the air forever, and when it finally came down, Arkansas had the lead for good.

Thurman finished with 15 points, as did Corey Beck, while Corliss Williamson had 23. All three were back next year when Arkansas returned to the national championship looking for a repeat, but was stopped by UCLA 89-78. Forty minutes of another kind of hell. Thurman was 2-for-9.

“We hated that we lost the game, but at the same time it was almost a relief it was over,” he said. “That season was one of the most challenging I’ve ever participated in, just because of the bulls-eye on your back, and everybody coming at you with their best shot.

“It was very frustrating, very draining. But looking back at it, not many teams ever get a chance to get back that close.”

Thurman figured he was ready for the NBA, but the NBA never called on draft day; a mystifying shun that he does not understand to this day. So he went to Europe, and now is back at Arkansas, as director of student-athlete development for the basketball program. Some players ask about the NBA. “I tell them,” he said, “there are no guarantees.”

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But it has been a good ride.

“Outside of not being drafted I feel like I still had a great career and have a lot to be proud about it, that I was able to win a national championship

“When you look back on it and you see how many lives were touched, for me, that’s what it’s all about. Just knowing there are so many people that remember me for that shot, and at the same time, remember the teams we had.”

He still plays the occasional pickup game, which begs a question. The unflappable, imperturbable shooting touch that brought down Duke, is it still there?

“I don’t think it’s going away,” said the man who made the biggest shot of all for Arkansas, “until I’m really, really old.”

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