By Kevin McPherson
Arkansas thrived at the free throw line when it mattered most, and now the Razorbacks are off to a great postseason start in their quest to make good on preseason expectations after taking down 9-seed Illinois, 73-63, on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament West Region in Des Moines, Iowa, giving the Hoop Hogs a 3-0 record in NCAAT openers spanning the past three seasons.
A team with preseason Top 10 rankings, Arkansas (21-13) will face West Region No. 1-seed and 4th-ranked Kansas (28-7) on Saturday in the NCAAT Round of 32 with the winner advancing to the Sweet 16 next week. The Jayhawks defeated 16-seed Howard, 96-68, earlier on Thursday.
Kansas, the defending national champion, is looking to repeat while the Hogs are seeking to add to their back-to-back NCAAT Elite Eight appearances achieved in the previous two seasons.
After a shaky 9-of-15 free throw effort through the early stages of the second half, the Hogs made 13 of their final 14 free throws attempts — including 9-of-10 in the final 1:18 of the game — as they kept the hard-charging Illini from ever pulling within a one-possession deficit in the second half. After falling behind 2-0, Arkansas blasted off for a 23-10 lead and would never trail or be tied in a contest that it often held double-digit advantages that swelled to as many as 17 points in the final 20 minutes.
Junior guard Ricky Council IV had a double-double (18 points including 11-of-12 free throw shooting to go with 10 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block), and reliable NCAAT veteran and junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis was a difference-maker at both ends of the floor (16 points on 7-of-14 field goals, including 2-of-4 from 3, to go with 6 rebounds, 4 steals, and 1 assist). It was Davis and Council who teamed up for what was likely the play of the game: Illinois had just engineered a 7-0 run to pull within 62-57 with 2:29 to play when Davis hustled downcourt for a blind-side steal that Council converted into a transition layup and a three-possession lead for Arkansas, 64-57, with 1:34 remaining. From there, the Hogs would outscore Illinois 9-6 with all of their points coming in that 9-of-10 free throw effort in the final 1:18.
Freshman guard Anthony Black had 12 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals, and 1 assist. Senior big man Makhi Mitchell had 9 points (4-of-5 field goals and 1-of-2 free throws), 7 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 1 assist off the bench. Freshman Jordan Walsh had 6 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 steals off the bench. Senior forward Kamani Johnson started and had 5 points and 5 rebounds (4 on the offensive glass) in 12 minutes. Freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., had an off night — 6 points (2-of-10 field goals and 2-of-3 free throws) and 1 steal.
Arkansas dominated rebounds (43-34, including an 11-3 edge in offensive rebounds), turnovers (17-11, which included 12 Hog steals), and points-off-turnovers (19-11) while also winning points-in-the-paint (32-26).
The Hogs had only 4 assists on 24-of-63 field goal shooting (38.1%). Arkansas was 3-of-11 from 3 (27.3%) and 22-of-29 for the game at the free throw line (75.9%). Defensively, the Hogs were sound most of the game, limiting Illinois to 20-fo-52 from the field (38.5%), including 6-of-22 from 3 (27.3%). The Illini shot only 17-of-26 from the free throw line (65.4%), which included an anemic 10-of-17 in the second half (58.8%).
“Really proud of our guys for leading 37 minutes of this game today.” fourth-year Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said. “We felt like if we didn’t pick them three-quarter court, we would be doing ourselves a disservice. We felt like with their size, we needed to speed them up. I think those 17 turnovers and 12 steals were a product of that.”
Musselman acknowleded the strides he believes his team has made.
“I said before the tournament, I feel like this is a team that continues to improve,” he said.
The Razorbacks have won 2 of their last 3 games going back to the SEC Tournament, and they picked up the program’s first-ever win over the Illini after coming into Thursday’s matchup with a 0-5 mark in the all-time series between the two schools.
Arkansas improved to 6-2 in neutral-site games as part of an overall 8-10 mark in contests played away from their homecourt at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Illinois (20-13) lost both of its games in postseason play, falling to Penn State in the first-round of the Big Ten conference tournament last week before losing to the Hogs on Thursday. The Illini were led by veteran guard Terrence Shannon, Jr., who was held scoreless the first 16 minutes of the game before finishing with a game-high 20 points. RJ Melendez and Coleman Hawkins each had 10 points, but second leading scorer Matthew Mayer was held to 2 points (0-of-6 field goals, including 0-of-5 from 3, and 2-of-3 free throws).
Arkansas is now 49-34 all-time in the NCAAT.
Musselman moved to 7-2 in the NCAAT at Arkansas and 94-41 overall as Head Hog.
Musselman started the combination of Smith, Black, Davis, Council, and Johnson.
Davis scored twice in an 8-0 Arkansas run as the Hogs raced ahead 8-2 to start the game, then Smith scored twice to fuel a 10-0 Hogs run for a 23-10 Arkansas lead.
Illinois pulled within 23-15, Council had a dunk and the Hogs’ first three-pointer of the game as Arkansas took its largest lead at 32-18.
Illini star guard Terrence Shannon, Jr., did not score until he made two free throws with 3:50 remaining in the first half, but that was the start of his eight consecutive points for the Illini as the Arkansas lead was whittled to 34-26.
Johnson’s putback was the final points of the first half as Arkansas took a 10-point lead into the break, 36-26.
Arkansas won rebounding (25-16) and turnovers (9-7) in the first 20 minutes.
The Hogs shot 14-of-33 from the field (42.4%) in the opening half, including 1-of-5 from 3 (20%), and 7-of-12 at the free throw line (58.3%). Arkansas’ defense was stifling for the most part, limiting Illinois to 8-of-29 field goals (27.6%), including 3-of-11 from 3 (27.3%). The Illini hit 7-of-9 at the foul line (77.8%).
Council led Arkansas with 10 points, 7 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block in the first half, while Black had 7 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 steals. Davis had 6 quick points, 3 rebounds, and 2 steals but only played 9 minutes when he picked up his second foul as he sat out the final 11 minutes of the opening half.