By Kevin McPherson
Arkansas thrived at the free throw line when it mattered most, and 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 an 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 Councl who teamed up in what was likely the play of the game: Illinois had just enjoyed 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 for a transition dunk and a three-possession lead for Arkansas, 64-57, with 1:34 remaining. From there, the Hogs would outscore Illinois 9-6 with all their point 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.
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 tu 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 to him scoring 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-og-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 nly played 9 minutes when he picked up his second foul as he sat out the final 11 minutes of the opening half.