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OPINION | WALLY HALL: This hoops season good for the state's soul

by Wally Hall | March 31, 2021 at 2:38 a.m.

After 25 years of disappointment, frustration and apathy, Eric Musselman and his hand-blended Arkansas Razorbacks brought joy and peace to Hogville's heart.

During a fatal pandemic of more than a year, the state of Arkansas had something to cheer.

While most of the nation was waiting to see what the aftereffects of spring break and covid-19 bring us, the Razorbacks' triumphant race came to an end Monday night.

Even in defeat, the Razorbacks once again presented themselves to the nation as a team that refused to quit.

Baylor was better, but twice in the second half the Hogs scratched, clawed and willed themselves to within four points of the aptly seeded No. 1 Bears.

The season will be measured by the body of work, and not for a single game when the Razorbacks were one of eight standing in a fight that started with 68 that shared a dream.

On Jan. 14, while sitting 2-3 in SEC play, the Razorbacks were about to spend the next 10-plus weeks rebuilding a reputation of winning that would find them one game away from college basketball's biggest stage -- the Final Four.

The now infamous practice session on that day with heavy vests, heavier breathing and exhausted legs was the crack in the psyche Musselman was looking for.

Ask any military veteran. You can go through boot camp with people you don't like, but you respect them when it is over because they finished the job.

Arkansas had just lost to LSU by 16 points in a game that wasn't that close.

In a nutshell, the Hogs were not playing as a team. They appeared to be individuals looking for their numbers in the box score.

Against the Tigers, Arkansas was 8 of 31 on three-point attempts. The Hogs had only 8 assists on 26 made field goals, and they turned it over 15 times.

Musselman and his staff got their attention, despite a 90-59 loss two days later to Alabama that he conceded probably was a direct byproduct of the physical toll of that practice.

The coaches started fixing the lineup, settling on four primary starters -- two being true freshmen.

The next three games were wins, and then they had a break with the Big 12-SEC Challenge. That was the last time Arkansas gave away a game this season.

Oklahoma State won 81-77 , but the Hogs left knowing they should have won.

The Hogs returned to SEC play and finished the regular season undefeated, winning eight in a row. Three were on the road, including in famed Rupp Arena against rival Kentucky.

It was good enough for second place behind wildly talented Alabama. They avenged early losses to the Tide, LSU and Missouri.

Missouri was beaten again by the Hogs in their first game of the SEC Tournament, but LSU -- who was one of the most underachieving teams in the country based on raw talent -- snapped the streak next.

Arkansas was 6 of 26 on threes in that loss to the Tigers.

Despite the setback, the Natural State high-fived when it was announced the Razorbacks had earned a No. 3 seed.

They paid notice to some CBS skeptics before beating Colgate, topped that with a narrow victory over Texas Tech and survived a pesky Oral Roberts to arrive in Monday night's game against Baylor, one of the most feared teams in the nation.

They started slow, falling behind by 18 in the first half, but closed to 46-38 at the half and trailed 64-60 with 7:34 to play.

But Baylor was too good. Too experienced. Too talented.

Still, it was a heady, fun-filled season when a group of kids made the Razorbacks feared again.

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