The third-seeded Razorback men’s basketball team (25-7) got off to a poor start against top-seeded Baylor (26-2) and was not able to recover during a season-ending 81-72 loss Monday night in Indianapolis.
For a reason unbeknownst to senior guard Jalen Tate, the Hogs struggled in the first half throughout the entire season. Arkansas trailed at halftime during five of its last seven games.
“We are a team that usually gets down in the first half and tonight was not any different,” Tate said in a postgame press conference. “We’ve been doing that all year. I’m not sure why it happens, but it is really hard to come back, especially down 18.”
Baylor came out at a blistering pace offensively and converted six of its first eight shot attempts to pull out to an 18-3 lead that set the tone of the game. Midway through the first half, Arkansas switched to its pick-and-roll defense which led to six turnovers in the final eight minutes as the team entered halftime on a 9-2 run to cut the deficit to eight.
Junior guard JD Notae, the SEC Sixth Man of the Year, led the Hogs in scoring with 14 points when he picked up two fouls in the span of 20 seconds and fouled out with 13 minutes left to play.
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman defended his decision to keep Notae on the court after his fourth foul in his postgame press conference.
“We were just going to see how long he could play out there,” Musselman said. “He picked up a fifth (foul) way too early, but I thought he played great offensively and we certainly needed him to play as many minutes as he could when he is playing like he was tonight.”
Tate reflected on some of the fouls called against Notae and hinted at a potentially different outcome in the game had the officiating been a bit more lenient.
“I think some calls just did not go his way,” Tate said. “I am not going to say we would have definitely won the game, but I think we would have had a better shot at the end of the game with him out there on the court.”
Without Notae, the Hogs managed to pull within four at the seven-minute mark, but they were unable to come any closer. Baylor responded with a 10-1 run that put the game to bed.
“When we got down, we could have hung our heads but we played really hard,” Musselman said. “They’ve got All-Americans (Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler) and we had three freshmen in our starting lineup. Obviously, we were the youngest team left in the Sweet Sixteen...It is asking a lot for three freshmen to play in an Elite Eight game.”
The Razorbacks’ freshman trio of Davonte Davis, Moses Moody and Jaylin Williams became a core part of the team’s rotation during conference play and received praise from Tate and Musselman for their development throughout the season.
“Our freshmen are great,” Tate said. “They made this experience everything that it was for me. They came to me for advice on the court (and) off the court. It is just amazing to see them flourish the way they did.”
Musselman lauded the members of his prized 2020 recruiting class that ranked eighth in the nation, according to Rivals.
“Without those guys, we are not here,” Musselman said “I thought our seniors did a phenomenal job trying to build the freshmen up every single day. They allowed our freshmen to be stars because they are such unselfish people.”
As Musselman’s second season as the Head Hog comes to a close, the Razorbacks take solace in the fact that they soared to heights that had not been reached in years. Arkansas finished the season in the AP Top 10 and advanced to Elite Eight for the first time since 1995 when they lost in the NCAA Tournament Championship under legendary coach Nolan Richardson.
“This team will never be forgotten,” Tate said.
While the second-year coach’s success may not be on par with Richardson quite yet, his passion — as seen during the team’s postgame celebrations — and impact on players rival any current coach in the country.
“Coach (Musselman) meant everything,” Tate said. “You see how emotional he is about the game every single day and sometimes in the season it gets annoying...but looking back, I’ll never have anybody like him. He is a once-in-a-lifetime coach.”