DALLAS — When forward Lenzie Howell of Arkansas was a senior at Bryan Adams High in Dallas, he attended the 1986 Final Four at Reunion Arena and dreamed of what it would be like to play in it.
Howell's dream came true four years later.
Howell helped propel the Razorbacks to the Final Four by scoring 21 points in an 88-85 victory over Texas in the NCAA Midwest Regional final Saturday.
Voted the MVP of the regional, Howell made seven of 13 shots, sank seven of 10 free throws, and had nine rebounds, two assists and two steals in 25 minutes.
"Lenzie Howell has come back to his hometown time and time again and proven that he's one of the best players in the nation," Texas Coach Tom Penders said. "And I'm not just talking about the Southwest Conference, he's one of the best in the nation.
"Lenzie Howell is a tough player. He's the kind of kid that does all the little things well. He's a great follow-up shooter and a good rebounder. I thought we did a reasonable job on everybody else, but Lenzie just kept coming up with big buckets in key possessions."
After getting 14 points and seven rebounds in the first half as Arkansas built a 43-36 lead, Howell was knocked out of the game for nine minutes early in the second half when Texas center Guillermo (Panama) Myers poked him in the left eye when they collided as Howell was driving for a layup. No foul was called and Howell fell to the court while play continued at the other end.
"I went baseline and pump-faked around a guy, and Panama went up and hit me in the eye," Howell said. "I wanted to stay in, but I couldn't because I was seeing double."
With Howell out, Arkansas guard Lee Mayberry took command of the game as the Razorbacks blitzed Texas, 25-13, to take a 16-point lead. Mayberry had 11 of his 18 points in the spurt.
Texas cut the lead to four points because the Razorbacks kept missing free throws, but Howell scored seven points in the final 11 minutes to preserve the victory. With Arkansas leading, 82-78, Howell scored four consecutive points, hitting two free throws with 1:29 remaining and adding a dunk as Arkansas reached the Final Four for the first time since 1978.
"Lenzie carried us," Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson said. "He always comes to the top especially in big games."
It wasn't the first time that Howell has saved Arkansas in the NCAA tournament.
The Razorbacks' third-leading scorer during the regular season, Howell has averaged a team-high 20 points in the tournament. He had 23 points in an 86-84 victory over Dayton in the second round and scored 25 points in a 96-73 victory over North Carolina in a Midwest Regional semifinal game.
"I've been playing with a lot of confidence all throughout the tournament," Howell said. "I haven't lost my confidence and I probably won't."
Why does Howell play so well in big games?
"I play well when the game is on the line, because I hate to lose," Howell said.
Howell has had more important things than basketball on his mind for the last six weeks.
While Arkansas has been fighting to win the NCAA championship, Lenzie Howell Sr. has been fighting for his life in a Dallas hospital.
Howell's father lapsed into a diabetic coma last month. Howell left school and returned home for 12 days to be at his father's hospital bedside.
Howell's mother informed Richardson that her husband had been hospitalized before the Razorbacks played Texas on Feb. 4. Not wanting to upset Howell, Richardson told him after the game.
Howell flew home, missing a game against Texas Tech. He rejoined the team for a game against Texas Christian, but, although he was there physically, his heart was obviously with his father and he returned home for 12 days.
The Razorbacks struggled while Howell was out, enduring their longest losing streak of the season, two games.
But they're unbeaten in 10 games since Howell returned. And the condition of Howell's father has improved as well.
"He's getting better," Howell said. "He's still in the hospital, but I'm sure he'll be out soon.
"It's been a little rough this year at times because a lot of things have happened. Sometimes it's hard to think about it and to talk about it. But I've just tried to hang in there and work hard."
Howell's mother Lily, said her husband's illness has been a difficult period for her son.
"It had a big impact on him for a while," she said. "That's why I tried to get him back to school, because I thought it would be good for him to get back with the guys on the team."
Howell's mother said her husband's struggle has been an inspiration to her son.
"I think he really wants to do well in the NCAA for his dad," she said.
And he has.