By Kevin McPherson
The 8th-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks will not be returning to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight for a third consecutive season — it would have been a program first — after 4-seed UConn dismantled and disposed of the Hogs, 88-65, on Thursday in one of two West Region Sweet 16 matchups in Las Vegas, Nev.
UConn dominated both ends of the floor, inside and out, from the onset to the final horn. The Huskies led by 17 points at halftime, 46-29, and by as much as 29 points in the second half, 62-33. The fatal blow was a 14-0 UConn first-half run that elevated the Huskies from a 20-17 lead to a 34-17 advantage as the Hogs would never get closer than a 13-point deficit from there. The final 23-point losing margin was the fourth most for an Arkansas team in the school’s 85-game NCAAT history.
Arkansas (22-14) finished 2-1 in this NCAAT as part of winning 3 of its last 5 games. The Hogs had taken down the West Region No. 1 seed Kansas, 72-71, on Saturday after dropping 9-seed Illinois, 73-63, in the NCAAT first-round on Thursday, March 16.
Despite the crushing loss, it was a historic NCAAT for a Hogs team that underachieved in the regular season while finishing two games below .500 in SEC play. By beating defending national champion and top-seed Kansas, Arkansas defeated 1-seeds in back-to-back NCAATs (last season it was a Hogs’ win against overall No. 1 Gonzaga in a Sweet 16 matchup) in becoming only the fourth team in NCAAT history to defeat No. 1 seeds in their own region in back-to-back seasons (Duke 1988-90, UCLA ’06-07, Butler ’10-11). And only once before had Arkansas knocked off a defending national champion in the NCAAT — it was U.S. Reed’s famous buzzer-beating half-court shot in the second round that lifted the Hogs to a 74-73 win over Louisville in ’80-81.
Arkansas is 8-3 spanning the past three NCAATs, and the back-to-back-to-back Sweet 16 berths marks only the second time in school history that the program enjoyed three consecutive Sweet 16 appearances (Naismith Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson had Hog teams advance to four straight Sweet 16’s spanning ’93-96). The ’22-23 Hogs finished 7-3 in neutral-site games on the season.
The Huskies’ opponent in the West Region finals on Saturday will be 3-seed Gonzaga, a 79-76 winner over 2-seed UCLA in the other West Region Sweet 16 matchup on Thursday.
UConn spaced the floor and moved the ball crisply on offense, attacking with poise and efficiency on the perimeter and interior en route to shooting 31-of-54 from the field (57.4%), including 9-of-20 from 3 (45.0%), and 17-of-21 at the free throw line (81.0%).
Defensively, the Huskies put up a wall in the paint in successfully defending Arkansas’ drive-and-attack offense, limiting the Hogs to 20-of-63 from the field (31.7%). Arkansas made 5-of-16 from 3 (31.3%) and 20-of-27 at the foul line (74.1%).
UConn dominated points-in-the-paint (42-24) and total rebounds (43-31), although Arkansas won the offensive rebounds (16-11) and second-chance-points (18-14). The Hogs won the turnover battle (17-10) but were minus-6 in points-off-turnovers (14-8). Arkansas also won fastbreak scoring (13-10), but the Huskies won bench scoring (22-14).
“Tonight we ran into a team that passed the ball really well and shared it,” fourth-year Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said. “But there’s a lot of great things going on at Arkansas, and proud of these three guys (Devo Davis, Anthony Black, and Kamani Johnson) as well as everybody in our locker room. Because, again, there’s not a lot of teams that have been to three straight Sweet 16s in the entire country, and we are one of them. So we’re really proud of that. The culture is strong.”
Sharpshooting guard Jordan Hawkins led UConn with 24 points, 3 assists, and 2 steals while big man Adama Sanogo anchored the paint with 18 points (9-of-11 field goals), 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks. Versatile wing Andre Jackson, Jr., had 7 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals, while freshman wing Alex Karaban finished with 11 points (5-of-5 field goals and 1-of-1 free throw) and 7 rebounds. Guard Nahiem Alleyne had 10 points (2-of-3 from 3 and 4-of-4 free throws).
Freshman guard Anthony Black — likely playing in his final game as a Razorback as he is considered a lock to enter the 2023 NBA Draft with first-round lottery pick projections — led the Razorbacks with 20 points (5-of-12 field goals and 9-of-11 free throws), 5 steals, 4 rebounds, and 1 assist in 37 minutes. Black finihsed fourth all-time at Arkansas in minutes played in a season with 1,253 (stat courtesy of Hogstats.com).
Junior Ricky Council IV — also a potential Arkansas one-and-done — contributed 17 points (4-of-12 field goals, including 1-of-3 from 3, and 8-of-9 free throws), 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 block in 34 minutes. Council’s 581 points in 2022-23 ranks as the second most for a first-year player at Arkansas (stat courtesy of Hogstats.com).
Freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr. — likely playing in his final game as a Razorback as he is considered a lock to enter the 2023 NBA Draft with first-round lottery pick projections — finished with 11 points (4-of-9 field goals, including 2-of-3 from 3, and 1-of-1 free throw) and 2 rebounds in 24 minutes.
Junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis — the Hogs star in this NCAAT and author of big performances spanning the team’s last three NCAAT runs — finished with only 3 points (1-of-10 field goals, including 1-of-3 from 3) and 4 rebounds.
Senior forward Kamani Johnson, the only Hog whose eligibility runs out at the end of the season, contributed 5 rebounds (4 on the offensive glass) before fouling out with just over 7 minutes to play in his final game as a collegian.
Frontliners Makhi Mitchell and Jordan Walsh each had 2 points while Jalen Graham had 5 points, 4 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block. Freshmen Derrian Ford (1 point), Joseph Pinion, and Barry Dunning, Jr. (4 points) each played down the closing stretch of the game, as did walk-ons Cade Arbogast and Lawson Blake.
“We had ups and downs, but we had an ultimate goal and weren’t able to reach it,” Davis said. “… We’re just proud for the guys that came in, didn’t know what was coming ahead of them. And we all came together and made it this far. And I’m proud of the guys for sure, continuing to push through the tough season that we did have.”
Arkansas slipped to 1-4 in the all-time series against UConn. The teams had never previously met in the NCAAT, and the last time the Hogs and Huskies faced each other was in a 102-67 Arkansas win in the PK80 tournament in Portland, Ore., in November of the ’17-18 season. The teams had met once before in postseason play, a 74-64 UConn win in the third-place game of the ’96-97 NIT.
UConn (29-7) defeated 13-seed Iona and 5-seed St. Mary’s to advance to the Sweet 16. The Razorbacks took down 9-seed Illinois, 73-63, in the NCAAT first round on March 16 before defeating top-seeded Kansas in the Round of 32.
Arkansas dropped to 50-35 all-time in the NCAAT.
Musselman fell to 8-3 in the NCAAT at Arkansas and 95-42 overall as Head Hog. His Razorback resume includes two Elite Eights and a Sweet 16 in his four seasons.
Musselman started the combination of Smith, Black, Davis, Council, and Johnson for the third consecutive game.
UConn jumped ahead 4-0 and was never tied or trailed, although a Smith triple pulled he Hogs within 11-10 and his three-point-play on a driving bank shot helped Arkanas close within 15-13 early.
The Huskies effectively put the game out of reach with a 14-0 run that gave them a 34-17 lead, and the Hogs would get no closer than a 13-point deficit in the first half as UConn led 46-29 at halftime.
UConn had its way inside and out while shooting 17-of-28 from the field (60.7%) in the opening half, including 4-of-9 from 3 (44.4%), and 8-of-8 at the free throw line (100%). Defensively, the Huskies were stifling as they held the Hogs to 10-of-20 field goals (33.3%), including 3-of-7 from 3 (42.9%). Arkansas made 6-of-6 at the foul line (100%).
The Huskies dominated the boards (22-9) and points-in-the-paint (24-12) while also controlling points-off-turnovers (9-4), second-chance-points (6-3), and fastbreak scoring (6-3).
Smith led Arkansas with 9 first-half points.