Team-leading scorer JD Notae walked off the court for likely his final time in a Razorback jersey Saturday, after fouling out with 3:47 left in a game that ended with an 78-69 Elite Eight defeat to the Duke Blue Devils, and all hopes of a miraculous comeback for the fourth-seeded Razorbacks went with him.
“We got beat by a better team today,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said in a postgame press conference in San Francisco. “I thought Duke was phenomenal. I would be surprised if they’re not playing to win a national championship.”
The first half was full of highs and lows for both squads, with the Hogs attaining an early 7-4 lead. The Blue Devils soon swung the score the other way, going up 22-14 at the 10:14 point of the opening half.
Arkansas fought back to bring the score to 37-33with just over two minutes to go play in the half, but a soul-crushing 8-0 run put Duke squarely in the driver's seat with a 45-33 lead going into halftime.
“We didn’t finish the half very well at all,” Musselman said. “I thought that really, really hurt us. Having said that, we took three free throws in the first half. That’s our game. We didn’t settle tonight at all. I guess they just did a good job with verticality.”
The Hogs came out of the locker room with a renewed vigor, chipping away the Blue Devils’ 12-point lead. Arkansas' defense and buckets on the other end brought its deficit down to just five with 13:19 left in the game, forcing a Duke timeout.
The Blue Devils went into a zone defense out of the timeout that completely stifled the Arkansas offense. Every Razorback dribble-drive was stymied by multiple Duke defenders, and the Hogs lacked the 3-point prowess to shoot their way out of the zone.
Duke turned Arkansas’ lack of offense into offense of its own and went on a 10-0 run to go up by 15 points. Arkansas did not make it a single-digit game again until the last shot of the match, when the winner was all but decided.
The Hogs fought to the bitter end, but could not swing the momentum back in their favor or make the game close.
Rebounding was a major factor in the Hogs’ loss. The Razorbacks were one of the shorter teams in the Elite Eight, and it showed on Saturday. They were outrebounded 34-25, and gave up many offensive boards and tip-ins that turned into second-chance points for the Blue Devils.
Duke center Mark Williams’ rim protection made it tough for Arkansas to convert at the basket. He swatted away three Razorback shots, but his presence affected nearly every layup, forcing would-be easy baskets to become wild, acrobatic attempts.
“When you play a team like Duke, you can’t expect to get those calls,” Notae said. “It was tough. You just have to go in there and finish.”
Williams was also brilliant at defending without fouling. The Hogs averaged 17 attempts at the foul line this season, but only found themselves at the charity stripe 11 times during what was a very physical game.
Sophomore forward Jaylin Williams was phenomenal, as he has been all season long. He recorded 19 points on 8-17 shooting, 10 rebounds and three assists, and expanded his hold on the lead for charges drawn by two, bringing his total to 53. Williams was the man the Razorbacks put in the soft spot of the zone. They found the most success when he had the ball in his hand and was in position to fire a pass to an open shooter or thread the needle to a cutter around the rim.
Arkansas will lose many key contributors after this season. Seniors Stanley Umude and Trey Wade were key pieces of the starting lineup used most throughout the season. Senior guard Chris Lykes came off the bench and gave the Hogs good minutes and a different speed when he checked in. Notae and Toney have another year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 season, but only time will tell if they decide to return.
“Trey has been a good teammate all year,” Williams said. “ I don’t think we get where we did without him. Playing with JD has been great. He leads, he defends, he does everything. It’s been great playing with him. He’s a great guy.”
The Razorbacks still have a bright future ahead. They will return underclassmen contributors Williams and Davonte Davis, a sophomore guard. Both will likely serve as the leadership core of next year’s team after being major members of the two Elite Eight teams. The Hogs also boast the No. 2 recruiting class in the country for next season, according to 247Sports. The class includes standout five-star recruits Nick Smith Jr. and Jordan Walsh.
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