This beautiful little ride couldn't have just ended conventionally. That's not the Razorback way.
Arkansas reeled off nine wins over 11 games, including a thrilling opening-round vanquishing of Seton Hall in the NCAA Tournament, and earned another Round of 32 date against North Carolina for its troubles. The Tar Heels, as usual chock-full of skill and bereft of glaring weaknesses, have obvious designs on a sixth national title, and they looked every bit the part after the first 15 minutes Sunday in Greenville, S.C.
UNC's size and versatility had the Hogs on the ropes. The margin was 30-13, the pace was uncomfortable for the underdogs in red, and nobody seemed primed to reverse the course. It was shaping up to be a rout like the 2008 matchup between these programs, and not like the back-and-forth affair of two years ago.
Daryl Macon pulled off a four-point play with a quick-trigger corner heave, though, and something clicked. The junior guard, largely ineffective Friday against Seton Hall, though he did hit two big free throws late, started to pepper the Heels with his soft jumper and sneaky drives, and freshman Adrio Bailey came off the bench to provide additional spark. When Macon swished another three to close the half, Arkansas had reeled off an impressive 20-8 finish to draw within five.
The burst was sustained, too. Carolina's backcourt was flustered by the Razorback defense, turning it over repeatedly in the second half while the Hogs waited on their usual leaders of late — Moses Kingsley, Dusty Hannahs and Jaylen Barford — to come to life. Arkansas stole away the lead and held it for extended stretches of the last 20 minutes, with Barford's acrobatic lay-in putting the Hogs up 65-60 with barely 3 minutes left.
The surge, all told, was remarkable: Over the span of about 22 minutes of game clock, Arkansas had outscored the Heels 52-30, and did it in a way that rekindled memories of Nolan Richardson's best Razorback teams. It was frenetic but controlled basketball, and it was awe-inspiring.
And then, with the aiding and abetting of a Big Ten official who was suspended three years ago for that conference's tournament due to some flagrant rule violations, it was over.
UNC finished out the game on a 12-0 run that was equally marked by the Hogs' ill-timed tightening up and referee Bo Boroski's indelible and inexcusable impact on the game. At the risk of pinning the season-ending, 72-65 loss on officiating, let's look past some of the Razorbacks' gaffes in the closing minutes to center on a sequence that has typified the "Hog Experience" for those of us cursed to have followed the state school's athletic programs for decades.
Macon tried a 22-footer with 1:18 left and the shot clock winding down that, upon an extensive replay review, was clearly tipped by UNC's Kennedy Meeks before it hit the baseline, but Boroski's crew made the determination that the replay was inconclusive and gave UNC possession.
Then, UNC's Joe Berry II threw about a half-pound of salt into a widening wound, first by taking four steps that didn't get whistled, then by careening into Bailey's perfectly positioned frame for a charge that also didn't get whistled, and then by heaving the ball up to the glass recklessly, where it ominously deflected right onto Meeks' waiting hand. That tip over Kingsley, who then rimmed out two free throws at the other end to effectively seal the Hogs' fate, proved to be a galvanizing moment in the Twittersphere, as lots of impartial onlookers evinced shock and disgust at the no-calls.
It was merely the icing on another inedible cake for the Hogs, though. UNC was whistled for only 10 fouls the entire game, compared to 20 for Arkansas, which is illogical in any context given the Heels' aggressiveness, and the Tar Heels never put the Razorbacks in the bonus, shooting a whopping 25 free throws compared to the Hogs' meager eight attempts (and Macon, you'll recall, had four of those on his three-point attempts in the first half). The game was fairly physical; there was no explanation for this kind of disparity unless you watched Boroski patrolling the far sideline on the broadcast and paid close attention to the fact that for the final 10 minutes especially, the veteran official was quick with the whistle when Arkansas was on defense and suspiciously silent at the other end. And don't chalk this up as paranoia, as the replay of the game inescapably will yield the same conclusion.
It was an officiating travesty, and it in large part dictated the outcome.