FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — A wounded Arkansas team coming off three losses in four games, missing arguably its best player, had something perfectly timed on the schedule.
Its best opportunity of this young season to turn it all around.
And over the course of a little more than two hours, Bud Walton Arena was witness to how powerful, how enrapturing college basketball can be.
Against No. 7 Duke on Wednesday night, the 4-3 Razorbacks held on and pulled off one of their most memorable home wins ever, doing so in front of a record-setting crowd. The largest assembly in this basketball barn's history — 20,344 in a building with an official capacity of 19,200 — almost never sat down over the course of a game that saw Arkansas outwork, outrun and outplay Duke en route to an 80-75 win.
The Hogs, whose most recent home game was a stunning six-point loss 12 days ago to UNCG, looked like a team reborn when faced up against the hyped Blue Devils. Here they were, the rare non-ACC power-conference team to play UNC and Duke in back-to-back games.
The passing, the connectivity, the way this team was emboldened by its crowd. It was riveting. They did it without junior guard Tramon Mark, the Razorbacks' leading scorer who was stretchered off the floor at the end of Arkansas' game against North Carolina on Friday. It was a lower back injury, but Mark's also dealing with groin and hip tenderness. Without him available, asking Arkansas to overcome Duke, even at home, felt like a steep task after so much inconsistency.
But Mark's a special player with a leadership quality that can impact every guy in the locker room. On Monday, he showed up for practice and put on his practice gear, knowing full well that he could not physically participate. He asked questions and did everything as if he was going to play in the game.
"I've never seen a player do something like that," Arkansas coach Eric Musselman told CBS Sports.
On Wednesday morning, Mark did the same thing at the team's shootaround. A game that needed no extra motivation was provided an emotional push by Mark, a transfer from Houston who is vital to Arkansas' culture. When the ball tipped at 8:25 local time, the Hogs uncorked not any pent-up frustration from their skid of losses, but instead showed elevated confidence and competence after almost 72 hours of diligent practice.
After all, this was Duke. This had to go their way. Or else.
"Anytime you play Duke it's a big game for your fan base, for your players, for your coaching staff," Musselman said in the locker room afterward. "They're talented and well-coached, but if you don't win that game – it was a must-win for us, it really was. … You don't want to be staring at 4-4 eight games into a season. You worry about a team's confidence if you don't win that game."
As the game drew on, it seemed clear an Arkansas loss wasn't going to happen, even with Duke putting a late scare into affairs after Arkansas gave away a double-digit lead in the closing minutes. With 2:09 left, hundreds of students began creeping closer to the court, awaiting the storm. Duke put on a full-court press to erase a big deficit, but it was too little too late. Despite half-hearted warnings before and after the final horn, a horde of Arkansas students flooded the floor and gave us one of the best scenes through three-plus weeks of the 2023-24 season.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please stay off the court," the PA announcer dryly implored a drunken crowd of students who were in the midst of a college memory they'll never forget.
This was the fifth all-time meeting between the two schools; Arkansas now holds a 3-2 edge. An incredible night in one of the best venues in college basketball also marked the 100th win of Musselman's career at Arkansas. The Hogs beating Duke registers as an upset, but the bigger one was Musselman not taking off his shirt in celebration afterward. He confirmed to me later: Never before had he notched such a major victory and managed to keep his shirt on.
The setting was as good as you'll find in November. More than 1,200 students camped out the night before to watch their team earn its first top-10 home win against a nonconference school in a generation. It was also Arkansas' first win over a top-10 ACC team since it beat North Carolina in 1995.
"Just an insane environment," Musselman said.
Echoing: "I don't think you see many environments like this," Duke coach Jon Scheyer said.
And it was on a night where an Arkansas legend was in the building. No, not Bobby Petrino. Though the newly rehired offensive coordinator was serenaded multiple times with "WE! WANT! BOB-BY!" chants from the students, a bona fide Razorback icon sat in an aisle seat eight rows behind Arkansas' bench. Amid a sea of white shirts on this white-out night, there was 81-year-old Nolan Richardson, dressed in all black, watching the program he brought to its apex do what he'd done twice before: send a loaded Duke team home with a loss.
It was Richardson's first regular season Arkansas game since 2019. Coming out of halftime, the fans gave him a standing ovation. A special one in Fayetteville. Everything coalesced for the home team. Arkansas has mattered again nationally for a few years because of Musselman's never-ending energy to revive a sleeping giant. Beating Duke, even while unranked, helps maintain Arkansas' status as a Program That Matters.
But I have to go back to what it felt like in this building. There are places capable of reverberating in your mind for days, months, years after the fact. Arkansas 80, Duke 75 seems destined to be just that.
"I thought at the eight-minute mark we were going to win the game," Musselman told me. "But I thought at halftime our team, there was a belief walking out of halftime."
Bud Walton Arena hit news levels of frenzy as the second half went on and Arkansas' lead ballooned. There was a pop at 12:18, when Khalif Battle hit a 3-pointer with 12:18 to make it 51-43, Hogs.
It got noisier after a timeout when Battle hit a shorty off the glass to give the Razorbacks their first double-digit lead of the night, 55-45, with 11:09 to go. When Battle's 3-pointer got Arkansas to a 63-49 lead, the joint got so loud, even the Arkansas coaching staff afterward told me they'd never heard this celebrated, classic basketball cathedral ever get that raucous.
The mojo never let up. Duke was bizarrely bad near the rim, missing more than 15 close-range shots. Some of it was Arkansas' pressure, some of it must have been the building. Preseason All-American Kyle Filipowski finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds, but he had only three points at the half and misfired multiple times.
"They play a different kind of defense where you can muck it up a bit," Scheyer said, giving full credit to Arkansas' attack and scheme.
This marked Scheyer's first time in an SEC arena — as a player or a coach. It was also Duke's first trip to an SEC arena in 11,617 days (Feb. 8, 1992, a 77-67 win over LSU). Over two-plus hours, the Blue Devils took a tour through Hog Hell that was an assault to the senses. The Blue Devils sit at 5-2, with a 1-2 record against high-major opponents. But Duke will have many chances at redemption.
Wednesday night was about Arkansas. This win will carry the fan base through Christmas. The Razorbacks were ranked No. 14 two weeks ago, but three losses in four games plunged them out of any consideration in this week's AP Top 25.
"There was a lot of pressure on tonight's game." Musselman said. "A lot."
Musselman said there are few times he's ever had a team without its leading scorer (in this case, not having Mark) show up better than what his group did Wednesday night. Arkansas' bench outscored a healthy Blue Devils team dotted with five-stars 36-9, a change aided by Musselman throwing a scouting report twist and putting in two different starters (plus El Ellis subbing in for Mark) from who started vs. North Carolina five days earlier.
Arkansas had 10 blocks on Duke — which is almost unheard of.
"They're old. They played like it," Scheyer said.
Khalif Battle led Arkansas with 21 points, along with five rebounds and five assists. For Trevon Brazile, a 19-point, 11-rebound night that included a personal-best four 3-pointers. Brazile missed most of last season with a torn ACL. His performance is a huge sign of progress.
Unlike football, the basketball schedule allows for major pivots in a short amount of time. Arkansas entered the season with visions of competing to win an SEC title. Then it got taken out at home by a SoCon school (UNCG) and barely escaped a bad Stanford team at the Battle 4 Atlantis before losing to Memphis and North Carolina.
Now it may have reset its trajectory. That will need to be proven over the next 4-6 weeks. Even if that doesn't happen, we were treated to one of the best moments of the first month of the season and a game that will live on in this state for a long time. Arkansas is nicknamed the "Land of Opportunity." On Wednesday night, the hometown Hogs seized their opportunity and potentially altered the course of their season.