In a season that has often stirred echoes from the glory days of Arkansas Razorbacks basketball that spanned the late-1970s through the mid-1990s, the sweetest validation to date is the No. 3 seed Hogs’ 68-66 grind-game victory over defending national runner-up and 6-seed Texas Tech in the NCAA tournament South Region on Sunday inside historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, sending Arkansas to the program’s first Sweet 16 in 25 years and its 12th in program history.
For the second consecutive game at the NCAAT, Arkansas erased a double-digit first half deficit to take a halftime lead as the Hogs eventually carved out a 13-point advantage, 56-43, before Tech clawed back within a point, 67-66, with 1:56 to play. Both teams missed scoring opportunities over the next minute-and-a-half, and after Arkansas’ JD Notae tacked on a free throw with 19.3 seconds remaining to expand the Hogs’ lead to 68-66, the Red Raiders’ Kyler Edwards missed on a contested driving layup attempt with 2 seconds remaining as Arkansas gathered the rebound and ran out the clock to escape with the win.
The 10th-ranked Razorbacks (24-6) defeated Colgate on Friday before taking down Tech on Sunday as they have now won 11 of their last 12 games to advance to next weekend’s NCAAT Round of 16 for a date against upset-minded and 15th-seeded Oral Roberts, a come-from-behind 81-78 winner over 7-seed Florida on Sunday that followed the Golden Eagles’ 75-72 overtime win over 2-seed Ohio State on Friday. Arkansas defeated ORU, 87-76, at home on Dec. 20 after trailing by 10 points at halftime.
The last time an Arkansas team advanced to the Sweet 16 was in 1995-96, so add the ’20-21 Hogs’ latest historic accomplishment to the program’s first Associated Press poll Top 10 finish in 26 years (last achieved by the ’94-’95 national runner-up Hogs) and its first 12-game winning streak against SEC teams in 27 years (achieved only once before — by the ’93-94 national championship Hogs).
“Obviously, Texas Tech’s a really physical team,” a fired-up Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said just moments after the final horn. “I thought we went nose-to-nose with them on the backboards. Unbelievable win for our program.
“We did a great job of trying to wall them up the last few seconds. We didn’t want to give up a three, we went to our one-through-five switching. Look, Texas Tech is such a tough team, and we went pound-for-pound with them tonight.”
Arkansas improved to 19-0 in games when its opponents scored 75 or fewer points, and the Hogs moved to 18-1 in games after leading at halftime. The Hogs improved to 44-32 all-time in NCAAT games, a record that now includes a 31-8 mark when the Hogs play as the higher seed relative to their opponents. The Razorbacks also moved to 3-1 as a 3-seed in the NCAAT (’91-92 Hogs were 1-1). Arkansas improved to 8-5 in away games on the season (includes a 3-1 record in neutral-site games).
In his second campaign as Head Hog, Musselman is now 2-0 in NCAAT games at Arkansas, he’s 8-1 coaching a ranked Arkansas team, he’s 44-18 overall at Arkansas, and he’s 1-0 at Arkansas coaching head-to-head against Tech’s Chris Beard.
Texas Tech (18-11 and ranked No. 21 in the final AP poll) had advanced to the last national title game played (’18-19) where it lost to Virginia, and the Red Raiders reached the Elite Eight the season before that (’17-18). With the win, Arkansas evened its all-time series record against Tech (40-40).
Senior combo forward Justin Smith had his second-consecutive 20-or-more scoring game (20 points on 9-of-11 field goals and 2-of-3 free throws) to go with 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 block, and Arkansas’ trio of freshmen — Moses Moody, Davonte “Devo” Davis, and Jaylin Williams — combined for 31 points, 22 rebounds, 6 assists, and only 4 turnovers in a collective breakout game on the national stage. Moody finished with 15 points (6-of-11 field goal shooting, including 2-of-6 from 3, and 1-of-2 free throws), 6 rebounds, and 1 assists in 39 minutes; Davis had 15 points (7-of-15 field goals and 1-of-2 free throws), 6 rebounds, and 1 assist in 37 minutes; and Williams started the game and finished with a game-high 10 rebounds to go with a team-high 4 assists and 1 point in 28 minutes. Senior combo guard Jalen Tate contributed 10 points (including 6-of-6 free throw shooting), 3 rebounds, and 2 assists, and Notae had 7 points and 3 rebounds.
“It feels really good,” Davis said of the Hogs advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 25 years. “I know a lot of people don’t get this opportunity, so it feels amazing. Everybody put in the work, and I feel like we as a team and as a community, we all deserve it for sure. We’re going to continue to roll on.”
In a grind-game that mostly saw the two teams mirroring each other — both made 12 free throws, both suffered 9 turnovers, and the rebounding was almost a draw (38-36 advantage Tech) — the Hogs overcame Tech’s 10-of-20 effort on three-pointers (compared to only 4-of-17 for Arkansas) by outscoring the Raiders 28-20 in the paint. Literally, Arkansas’ plus-8 advantage scoring inside was just a notch better than Tech’s plus-6 advantage scoring from behind the arc. That was the crucial statistical difference in the game. Arkansas shot 26-of-42 overall from the field (41.9%) compared to Tech’s 22-of-61 (36.1%), and the Hogs were a little more efficient at the foul line (12-of-17 for 70.6% compared to Tech’s 12-of-18 for 66.7%).
Each team presented disciplined, physical defenses that challenged both Musselman and Beard to make adjustments, which they were able to do at times as their teams enjoyed brief stretches of offensive flow and success. But it was defense that mostly ruled the day. Smith was once again dominant finishing at the rim as he and Williams worked out a nice high-low, two-man passing game that saw Williams setting up his frontcourt mate for rare uncontested lay-ups and dunks. Moody and Davis took turns slashing and driving into the mid-range for multiple slick finishes. Notae’s two three-pointers came in succession in the first half as Arkansas was able to chop a 10-point deficit down to 4.
On the other end, Tech’s best runs were fueled by three-pointers — a 4-of-6 start to the game that forged a 23-13 Tech first-half lead, then a 4-of-4 run of triples in a 2:48 span that allowed the Red Raiders to erase a 56-43 deficit to pull within a point, 58-57, at the 5:30 mark.
Moody responded with a deep, bank-shot three-pointer of his own to start a 7-0 Arkansas run that was capped by 4-of-4 free throw shooting by Tate as the Hogs went up by 8 points, 65-57, with 3:55 remaining in the game. But Tech knocked down another three-pointer followed by a traditional and-1 three-point possession to close the gap to 2 points, 65-63, at the 3:06 mark.
Williams found Smith backdoor-cutting for another dunk to push the Arkansas lead to 67-63 with 2:36 to play, then Tech made a combined 3-of-4 free throws on back-to-back possessions to cut the lead down to a single point once again, 67-66, with 1:56 to play.
Both teams struggled offensively over the next minute-and-a-half as they combined for 0-of-3 field goals and 0-of-1 free throws. The missed freebie was by Tech guard Mac McClung, who was long on the front end of a 1-and-1 with 1:15 to play. After a missed three-pointer by Notae that was rebounded by Tech with 50 seconds remaining, Raiders guard Terrence Shannon, Jr. missed on a contested lay-up at 0:34 that was rebounded by Notae, who brought the ball past midcourt and was fouled with 19.3 seconds left in the game. Notae made the first free throw but missed the second, setting up Tech’s Edwards for the final contested driving lay-up attempt that missed as Notae once again grabbed the defensive rebound just before the final buzzer went off.
Shannon led Tech with 20 points (including 3-of-4 shooting from 3). Kevin McCullar had 15 points and 8 rebounds, Edwards finished with 11 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists, and McClung was limited to 9 points on only 6 shot attempts.
Musselman switched up the starting lineup for the first time in 12 games as 6-10 big man Williams joined Moody, Davis, Smith, and Tate.
Smith and Moody combined for the buckets in a 5-0 Arkansas run to start the game, but Tech’s early three-point shooting and stifling halfcourt defense fueled a 23-8 run that was capped by Shannon’s triple to give his team a 23-13 lead with 10:34 remaining in the first half.
But SEC Sixth Man of the Year JD Notae came off the Hogs’ bench to strike for two triples of his own while igniting a 20-8 Arkansas run to close out the half as the Razorbacks led 33-31 at the break.
Smith (10 points and 4 rebounds) and Davis (9 points — including 7 in the aforementioned 20-6 run — and 4 rebounds) led the Hogs with Notae (6 points), Moody (4), and Tate (4) next in the scoring column. The Hogs shot 14-of-33 from the field in the first half (42.4%, but made only 2-of-10 from 3 (20%). Arkansas was 3-of-4 at the free throw line (75%).
Tech started 4-of-6 shooting from 3 but missed its last 4 attempts before the break, finishing 4-of-10 from distance (40%). The Red Raiders were 12-of-33 overall from the field (36.4%) and 3-of-7 from the foul line (42.9%).
Arkansas was minus-2 in rebounds (20-18) and turnovers (4-2) at halftime. Despite Tech’s 9-5 advantage on the offensive glass, both teams had 5 second-chance-points. Arkansas was plus-2 in points-in-the-paint (14-12) but minus-6 in fastbreak points (6-0). The Razorbacks were plus-6 in bench scoring on the strength of Notae’s two triples.