Survive and advance. In March, that is all that matters, and it is exactly what the Arkansas men’s basketball team did Thursday afternoon, defeating Illinois 73-63 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Head coach Eric Musselman has led the Razorbacks to consecutive Elite Eight appearances with hopes for more as the tournament continues. Thursday’s win brought his postseason record at Arkansas to 7-2.
“We have learned a lot,” Musselman said in the postgame press conference. “This is a team that is still growing, and I said even before the tournament that I feel like this is a team that continues to improve.”
Arkansas opened the game slowly, scoring just 10 points in the first eight minutes of the first half. The saving graces for the Hogs were their defense, which allowed seven points over the same span, and junior guard Davonte Davis, who contributed six of his 16 points over that opening stretch.
Davis struggled during the Southeastern Conference tournament, scoring just 12 points during Arkansas’ two-game campaign, but his 16-point, four-steal performance explains why Arkansas fans have dubbed him “Tourney Devo.”
“He's got great mental toughness, and I think he knows that I really believe in him and really trust in him, whether he's on the ball, whether he's off the ball,” Musselman said. “Certainly the defensive assignment that he gets assigned to on a nightly basis. So there is oftentimes where there is just a connection and a belief that he's going to come up in big moments, and certainly tonight was another one that he was able to do that for us with his scoring.”
With a 13-10 Razorback lead and 9:58 left in the first half, Arkansas’ offense finally caught its stride, igniting for a 10-0 run for a 13-point lead late in the first half.
The Arkansas run came to an end with a pair of free throws from Illinois forward Matthew Mayer, but back-to-back slams by freshman guard Anthony Black and junior guard Ricky Council continued the Razorback momentum earned over the previous period.
After a series of back and forth during the final five minutes of the first half, Arkansas took a 10-point lead into the locker room.
The second half started just as the first half did — with a shot-making master class from Davis. His most impressive play came as the shot clock ticked down when Black found him for a 3-point jumper to beat the buzzer and extend the Arkansas lead to nine with 14:15 left to go in the second half.
The Razorbacks owned the next five minutes. They rode three straight swishes from senior forward Makhi Mitchell en route to a 14-2 run that put them firmly in the driver's seat.
“Our team as a whole we start, I guess you could say pushing the tempo, starting with defense, and I think our defense got us started,” Davis said. “The team, I think we held it strong and we did what we needed to do on the offensive end, which is executing and getting downhill and executing our free throws.”
Despite the strong showing from the Razorbacks to open the first half, the Fighting Illini continued to fight. Down by 17, guard RJ Melendez scored eight straight to get Illinois back into the game heading into the under-eight media timeout.
Illinois tested Arkansas down the stretch as the previous 17-point lead shrunk to just five, but senior guard Ricky Council IV proved why he was such a coveted player in the transfer market just a year ago.
Council stepped to the line six times over the games final 1:18, cashing in all six free throws and sealing the game to help Arkansas advance to the round of 32.
“We were in this position many times before. We would be up 10, up 12 at halftime, and starts dwindling down and the other team takes the lead. So just keep that mindset we got to win the game. We all wanted to win, and just keeping our foot on the gas and not giving up.”
The Razorbacks’ next appearance will come against Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the West Region, at 4:15 Saturday as they hope to continue their run in the big dance. The contest will be broadcast on CBS.
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