DES MOINES, Iowa — For the third straight year, the Arkansas men’s basketball team is headed to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament thanks to a come-from-behind 72-71 upset win over top-seeded Kansas on Saturday
After the Razorbacks claimed the opening bucket, the Jayhawks pounced. Kansas went on an 11-0 run; over that span the Hogs shot 0-for-4 from long range and were held scoreless for 4:13 of game time.
Arkansas battled back, but was unable to cut the deficit to any smaller than four points in the first half. The Jayhawks went into the halftime break with an eight-point lead, 35-27, just two off their biggest of the day at that point.
Early in the second half, it was a very back-and-forth affair, much like the first outside of that big KU run at the start of the game. Then, right before the halfway mark of the period, Arkansas went on an 8-0 run to cut the Kansas lead to just two points. That was sparked by junior guard Davonte Davis, who scored 21 of his team-leading 25 points in the second half.
“I feel like we all did something to help us win and I’m glad we did that,” Davis said. “Ricky (Council IV) knocked down big free throws, we had Nick (Smith Jr.) come in and play really good defense at the end of the game. Everybody contributed.”
Then came the big momentum shift.
Freshman guard Jordan Walsh drilled a 3-pointer from the righthand side of the arc with just over eight minutes to play, giving the Hogs their first lead, 52-51, since it was 2-0. From that point on there were two lead changes and three ties.
Down the stretch, the teams seemingly went shot-for-shot to keep it tight. Despite Davis fouling out with 1:56 remaining, Ricky Council IV and Kamani Johnson hit clutch shots to tie the game, take the lead and then extend that lead with under 30 seconds remaining.
“I was on the first half and Devo had the second half, and I was in the corner ready to rebound if he missed and he wasn’t missing,” Council, who finished with 21 points said. “And coach, when he fouled out, looked at me and he wanted me to take the role that Devo had.”
After that, all the Hogs had to do was defend and drill their free throws and they were on to the Sweet 16.
Thanks to Council, they did exactly that.
The Hogs will take on the winner of Sunday’s game between St. Mary’s and UConn next weekend.
At Friday’s pregame press conference, Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said that his team’s strategy was to always have somebody “attached” to Kansas star freshman Gradey Dick. In the first half, the guard went just 2-for-6 from the field, including 0-for-1 from deep, with four points. That’s a solid effort against a player who’s expected to be playing in the NBA this time next year and went for 19 in his first-round win over Howard.
In the second half, Dick was still largely a nonfactor scoring-wise. He finished the night with just seven points on 3-of-9 shooting.
“We just wanted to give no air space obviously to No. 4, Gradey Dick,” Musselman said. “He’s an incredible shooter, one of the best shooters in college basketball.”
He was a menace on the boards, though. Dick finished the night with seven rebounds to lead the Jayhawks.
Throughout the tournament, Musselman mentioned how PGA Tour and former Razorback golfer John Daly texts him about the team’s free throw shooting after every game.
On Saturday, Arkansas knocked down 21-of-26 shots from the charity stripe, including 15-for-18 in the second half to help secure the one-point win. It’s safe to say Daly’s messages won’t be too critical of them after Saturday’s performance at the line.
“He tried calling me, got a couple of texts already. Before we hit the plane, I will try to call John. He’s been texting me drills. Like he wanted our guys to get a putter out and hit a ball into a cup,” Musselman said. “We haven’t tried it yet, luckily we’ve been making foul shots, but I know that the state of Arkansas is on fire right now. I know John Daly is pretty pumped up, too.”
This marked the third straight season the Razorbacks took on a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. In 2021, they fell to Baylor in the Elite Eight. Last year the Hogs toppled Gonzaga in the Sweet 16.
Musselman said Friday that playing top seeds so often isn’t a stroke of great luck for Arkansas. But he was confident his team had the right mindset needed to get the job done against the Jayhawks based on what they’ve done in the past. They proved their coach right with a thrilling win in Des Moines. So much so that Musselman jumped on the media table and took his shirt off in celebration in front of the Arkansas fans.
“We talked about the mentality that you need to have going into this particular game. I don’t know what − not good luck to play three number ones in three years,” Musselman said. “I don’t know if that’s ever happened before. But if it has happened before, it certainly hasn’t happened with many programs.”
Despite that three-ball from Walsh in the second half, Musselman’s squad isn’t known for its ability to hit shots from beyond the arc. Coming into Saturday, the Razorbacks were shooting just 32% from deep, which ranks 304th in the nation. But Saturday’s performance was woeful even by their standards.
In the opening half, Arkansas missed four 3-pointers during their scoreless drought that lasted over four minutes. In the entire opening 20 minutes, the Hogs went 1-for-9 from beyond the arc.
They did marginally better in the second half, draining 3-of-15 overall on the night to bring their percentage from downtown to 20%.
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