The surprising Razorbacks stop Auburn to guarantee their 12th tournament bid in 13 years.
By JOANNE KORTH
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2000
ATLANTA -- Arkansas guards Teddy Gipson and T.J. Cleveland climbed onto a table to deliver this message to a swarm of screaming Razorback fans and everyone else in college basketball:
Arkansas won the Southeastern Conference tournament with a 75-67 victory against Auburn on Sunday at the Georgia Dome, claiming the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Razorbacks (18-14) became the sixth team in NCAA history to win four games in a conference tournament, the first in the SEC since Auburn in 1985. At 7-9 in the regular season, Arkansas was the No. 3 seed in the Western Division.
"No one expected us to come in and do what we did," said Arkansas guard Chris Walker, the only senior. "Everyone expected us to lose in the first round. It was sweet to prove everyone wrong."
It is Arkansas' first SEC tournament title, without which it would not have made the NCAA's 64-team field. Instead, the Razorbacks make their 12th appearance in 13 years.
"We know we worked hard to get our spot," said guard Brandon Dean, the tournament MVP after scoring a career-high 22 in the final. "It wasn't handed to us by any means."
Despite the loss, Auburn (23-8) gained valuable experience for the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers developed chemistry in three SEC tournament games and won for the first time without star Chris Porter, ruled ineligible for taking $2,500 from an agent.
"This was a great boost for us," Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said. "Our team knew that we needed to change our chemistry coming into this tournament. I was proud of our team every time we played."
Auburn led 32-27 at halftime but in a seesaw game made just two field goals in the final six minutes. The Razorbacks overcame a 41-20 rebounding deficit with their full-court pressure and aggressive half-court defense, which forced 17 turnovers.
Freshman forward Joe Johnson, the tournament's leading scorer with 69 points in four games, gave Arkansas the lead for good at 63-62 on a bank shot with 3:53 left. The Razorbacks made eight free throws in the final 1:23.
"To win the Southeastern Conference tournament with a bunch of puppies is unbelievable," said Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, whose team features 10 freshmen and sophomores. "It'll go down as one of the all-time greatest things to happen in my career."
Auburn forward Mack McGadney, a starter since Porter's suspension Feb. 27, led the Tigers with 15 points and a season-high 15 rebounds. He and teammates Doc Robinson and Mamadou N'diaye joined Arkansas' Dean and Johnson on the all-tournament team.
Richardson was overwhelmed. He had brought better teams to the SEC tournament since Arkansas joined in 1992, including the 1994 national champion, but never won.
"It's so gratifying to see our fans smiling and saying, "We finally won one,' " said Richardson, who lost the 1995 and '99 SEC title games to Kentucky. "We don't have to worry about getting invited to the NCAA Tournament. And I really don't care who we play. I just want to play."