The fourth-seeded Arkansas men’s basketball team scraped by the underdog New Mexico State Aggies 53-48 Saturday, slogging through an ugly showing of stellar defense and abhorrent offense from both teams in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Buffalo, New York.
With the win, the Hogs advance to the tournament’s Sweet 16 round for the second year in a row.
“It was obviously not a cosmetically offensive game,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said in the postgame press conference. “The toughness, the resilience and the way that we played defense was incredible.”
The first half was a defensive battle as neither team could find the bottom of the hoop for much of the opening period.
The Hogs pulled ahead 14-9 with 6:15 left in the first, then senior guard JD Notae caught fire, scoring eight straight to put the Razorbacks up 21-11 at the 2:18 mark.
The Aggies fought back a bit and cut the deficit to nine by the time the buzzer sounded, going into halftime behind 26-17.
New Mexico State came out of the locker room at halftime firing on all cylinders, storming back to take a 33-32 lead with a 16-6 run. Arkansas clawed back to gain the lead and some breathing room and had a 41-33 lead at the 6:06 mark.
The Aggies pulled back within one possession with just over one minute remaining, making the score 46-43 in favor of the Hogs.
New Mexico State answered a pair of free throws by the Razorbacks with a 3-pointer to bring the Arkansas lead to just 48-46 with 11 seconds remaining. After New Mexico State committed a foul, the Razorbacks hit their free throws to close the door on the Aggies and move on to the Sweet 16.
“This whole season for us has just been fighting,” sophomore forward Jaylin Williams said postgame. “Everybody turned into a dog, everybody wanted it bad. We’ve been fighting all year, and to reach this point, it’s a great feeling.”
The Hogs won because of their success at the free throw line. They only hit 14 other shots all game, but racked up 22 points on 25 attempts from the charity stripe. Arkansas did not hit a field goal the last 6:06 of the game but kept the Aggies at bay with free throws.
Defense, namely from senior guard Au’Diese Toney, was also part of the win’s secret sauce. He was matched up with New Mexico State’s Teddy Allen, who led the Aggies with 37 points in their upset over UConn in the first round of the tournament. Toney shut down Allen, only allowing him to score 12 points on 16 shots.
The Hogs will face undoubtedly their toughest opponent of the season when they take on the No.1 overall seed, the Gonzaga Bulldogs. The two teams will square off at 6:09 p.m. Thursday in San Francisco for the Sweet 16. The game will be broadcast on CBS.
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