PINE BLUFF — For those who didn’t know, the late Al McGuire made an interesting point about Arkansas basketball during a live telecast:
“Surprisingly, Arkansas plays on three home courts — one in Little Rock, one in Fayetteville and one here,” the Marquette coach-turned-broadcaster noted.
“Here” was the Pine Bluff Convention Center. Then was Feb. 12, 1984. Who were the No. 1 team in men’s college basketball, the North Carolina Tar Heels, and the Arkansas Razorbacks.
According to then-Razorback forward Charles Balentine, legendary North Carolina head coach Dean Smith didn’t want to play in the old on-campus Barnhill Arena or Little Rock’s Barton Coliseum.
“North Carolina wanted a neutral court if it wasn’t a knock-over team,” current Pine Bluff Conventon Center executive director Bob Purvis said. “It wasn’t neutral, but it wasn’t a home court.”
Apparently, most of the 7,529 fans in attendance weren’t convinced it wasn’t a home game.
“I’ve always said our crowd was our sixth man getting us up and beyond,” said Balentine, a junior starting forward in 1984 who was averaging 7.7 points and 4.2 rebounds.
Razorback basketball in Pine Bluff was a norm for 16 seasons. The Convention Center, which opened in 1976, hosted the Hogs once each season in 1977-78 and 1978-79 and welcomed them twice a season for each of the next 14 campaigns. Arkansas was very successful here, winning 28 of 30 games.
“The biggest advantage we had was, there was no place else this part of the world” to play a game of high magnitude, Purvis said. “The only facility south of Fayetteville was Barton Coliseum, and no one wanted to go to Barton Coliseum. There was no new 6, 7 or 8,000-seat facility.”
But rarely did a team from a big-name conference play Arkansas in Pine Bluff.
Enter North Carolina of the Atlantic Coast Conference, one of the biggest brands in college basketball, two seasons removed from a national championship. The team, which was 19-0 going into the game, was led by soon-to-be national player of the year Michael Jordan and his fellow future NBA stars Sam Perkins and Brad Daugherty.
At least two Arkansas players, Joe Kleine and Alvin Robertson, were familiar with Jordan and Perkins, as they played together on the U.S. Olympic team.
While the Razorbacks were preparing for a Southwest Conference game at Southern Methodist to be played the day before, the Tar Heels had already arrived in Pine Bluff the Thursday prior. (Arkansas and UNC played on a Sunday.)
“We kept looking in our newspapers, and they were talking about how the Tar Heels were already in town,” Balentine said, adding there wasn’t much pregame coverage of Arkansas vs. SMU.
Arkansas was 17-4 before the SMU game and in the middle of a tough Southwest Conference race. The Razorbacks fell out of the Associated Press rankings after back-to-back losses to Rice and Villanova, but started a new winning streak with wins over Baylor and Texas A&M (the latter decided by one point).
The Hogs needed to beat SMU in Dallas to remain in second place. So, there was no time to look ahead to the Tar Heels.
“Before we left to go to Dallas, that’s all we talked about, beating SMU,” said Balentine, a Newport native who now works as a district manager for Academy Sports and Outdoors and resides in Rogers. “… In order to be in second place, we had to beat SMU.”
Mission accomplished. Arkansas won 80-71 and was supposed to fly into Pine Bluff that evening.
Instead, violent weather kept the Razorbacks in Dallas until the next morning.
“The weather didn’t get better,” Balentine said. “Dallas was normally a 45-minute flight. It took us about an hour and a half to get there.”
And it was 2 hours before game time when the Hogs landed. NBC Sports crew, which included its top college basketball broadcasting duo of Dick Enberg and McGuire, was on hand to televise action, giving Pine Bluff rare national exposure.
“It’s just kind of odd we were both in the middle of the conference, and we took a day out of conference to play,” Balentine said.
Let alone the day after a conference game, but Balentine added it was originally scheduled that way.
“No one knew of a Michael Jordan when it was scheduled two years in advance,” Purvis said.
For Balentine and the Hogs, the more immediate concern was how they would perform in front of the NBC cameras.
“We were still queasy from that trip,” Balentine said. “It was the worst flight I had ever been on. We just had breakfast, and it wasn’t great. We were still in the dressing room. Coach (Eddie Sutton) said, ‘Get out there on the floor and shoot.’ We were just trying to get our legs under us.”
Then they headed back to the locker room before coming out for the tip.
“This is where I give coach Sutton all the credit: He told us, ‘Forget all that you just went through. We’re here now,’” Balentine said. “’It’s time to go to work.’
“I remember him writing on the backboard. ‘Charles you got this guy, Joe you got this guy.’ We didn’t have time to prepare. But he told us, ‘You’ve got nothing to lose. Get out there and play.’”
North Carolina was missing an important player in freshman point guard Kenny “The Jet” Smith, whom Balentine said did not make the trip with a broken wrist. Stepping up in his role was freshman Steve Hale, a Tulsa, Okla., native and solid spot shooter who was heavily recruited by the Razorbacks.
But Arkansas was more concerned about the disadvantage in the frontcourt that North Carolina posed.
“Our goal was to contain Perkins and Daugherty,” Balentine said. “We were overmatched already. Our goal was to keep it a half-court game, keep it within 55 and 60 points.”
As for Jordan, the two-time consensus All-American who was averaging 19.6 points per game and hitting 55.1 percent from the field in 1984?
“There was no scheme to stop Michael Jordan,” Balentine said. “It was more of a team thing.”
In 1984, there was no three-point line or shot clock in nonconference or national postseason game, so trying to limit the Tar Heels on offense wasn’t far-fetched.
In fact, Arkansas — which employed a 2-3 zone — raced to a 38-34 halftime lead and didn’t play like a team weary from travel. Both teams hit 50 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes.
“We played it at the pace we wanted to,” Balentine said.
The Hogs expanded the lead to 46-36 early in the second half, but the Tar Heels fought back to take a 58-57 advantage. Kleine, the Hogs’ center, hit a jump shot to put his team back in front.
North Carolina, which shot a little colder from the field in the second half (40.7 percent), made some clutch buckets, however. Jordan, who finished with a game-high 21 points, made back-to-back shots to put North Carolina ahead 64-63 with 1:15 left.
With 29 seconds left and no time outs left, Arkansas inbounded the ball side-out, and McGuire correctly predicted the Hogs would put the ball in Robertson’s hands.
“I was always the inbound man,” Balentine said. “We drew that play up. The plan was to clear out and let Alvin take Steve Hale one-on-one. When Alvin got the ball, they immediately double-teamed him.”
Robertson got the ball back just outside the key with 9 seconds left, with Hale heavily on him.
“Undefeated team,” McGuire said on the call. “It can all end right here. There hasn’t been an undefeated team since 1976, Indiana.”
Then Robertson found Balentine.
“Out of the corner of my eye, here came the ball,” he said. “Just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
Balentine stopped the bounce-pass with his left hand and pulled up for the 5-foot bank shot high off the backboard to put UA ahead by one point with 4 seconds left. Two more seconds elapsed before North Carolina called timeout. (Unlike today, the clock did not stop on a made basket in the final minute.)
Balentine jumped for joy in transition after the shot, hugging Kleine before they headed to the bench.
Because of the seating in the Convention Center, the ball could not be inbounded with a player entirely behind the side-out line. Matt Doherty inbounded from half-court, his feet on the line, and found Hale — who had 15 points and six assists — open in the left-hand corner for an open turnaround shot.
“It’s good!” McGuire prematurely screamed.
It wasn’t. The shot clanked off the rim, and fans stormed the Pine Bluff court in celebration. Arkansas had just beaten top-ranked, unbeaten North Carolina 65-64, with the help of Balentine’s 10 points.
Enberg summed up the celebration scene in four words: “Pandemonium in Pine Bluff!”
Arkansas finished second in the SWC standings and the conference tournament, dropping a 57-56 decision to Houston in the final. The Hogs finished eighth in the final AP poll.
In its next outing, Arkansas lost to Virginia 53-51 in overtime in the NCAA tournament, wrapping up its season at 25-7.
North Carolina won the ACC regular-season title, but was stunned by Duke 77-75 in the ACC tournament semifinal. Indiana upset UNC 72-68 in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen before losing to Virginia 50-48 in the Elite Eight.
Virginia lost 49-47 to Houston in the Final Four, but the Cougars finished second in the NCAA for the second straight season as Georgetown won the final 84-75.
But Arkansas’ win over North Carolina was a really good highlight that year, too. Maybe the best highlight in Pine Bluff sports history.
“That (win) gave a lot of notoriety to the state,” Balentine said. “People forget, later that same year, we snapped Houston’s 35-game conference winning streak. That was huge for us because they were ruling the Southwest Conference.”
And the Tar Heels ruled all of college basketball — until they visited Pine Bluff.