DES MOINES, Iowa — Arkansas is headed to the Sweet 16 following a 72-71 over No. 1-seed Kansas at the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday.
The No. 8 seed Arkansas became the first team this season to trail Kansas at the half and then win. The Jayhawks were up 35-27 at intermission with the Razorbacks only leading once at 2-0. Eric Musselman has been telling people the Hogs are getting better following a slow ending to the season. On Saturday, they proved it.
"That’ s such an unbelievable win for our program," Musselman said. "I keep telling people we’re getting better. Not many teams get better at this time of year. I’ve never been prouder of a team than tonight."
However, Davonte "Devo" Davis and Ricky Council IV led a rally in the second half that saw the Hogs defeat the defending national champions. Davis led all scorers with 25 points, including 21 in the second half, and also chipped in eight rebounds. Davis was teary eyed after the hard-fought victory.
"Put in the work," Davis said. "This team has struggled but we figured out. And I’m glad we did at the right time. I’m happy we had the team to do it."
Musselman praised Davis for his performance that allows Arkansas to go to Las Vegas now.
"Devo was absolutely incredible," Musselman said as Davis was nearby. "I feel like he’s my son."
The Hogs were celebrating the win and Musselman talked about what topping Kansas meant.
"We're celebrating back there because we have such incredible respect for Kansas, defending champions, MVP of their league in No. 10, Jalen Wilson," Musselman said. "They are a hard, hard, hard team to prepare for. Didn't play defense as well as we normally do but we wanted to create more pace in the second half and certainly did that scoring 45 points and then the clutch free throw shooting by Ricky, 10 of 11 in the game, the second-chance points was a big part of our win today.
"Kamani (Johnson), 6 offensive rebounds, 10 rebounds, and then the play of Devo Davis taking the ball to the basket and middle pick-and-roll, his defense all game and then once he fouled out we were able to, you know, win! The offensive rebound off the missed free throw was incredible."
The Razorbacks went on an 11-0 run to take a 52-51 lead with 8:55 remaining in the game. It was a Jordan Walsh 3-pointer that put the Hogs on top by one.
The second half was much different than the first where the Jayhawks led basically the entire time. The lead changed hands and several ties in the last nine minutes of the game. It was Council who took over late to provide the Hogs with the win after Davis fouled out with 1:56 remaining in the game.
Council broke a 67-67 tie with 23.7 seconds remaining when he made a free throw. He missed the second, but got his own rebound. He went back up with the shot and was fouled again. This time, Council made both free throws giving Arkansas a 70-67 lead with 21 seconds remaining. Council talked about taking over after Davis fouled out.
"Yeah, Devo pretty much had the second half," Council said. "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. And Coach, when he fouled out, looked at me and he wanted me to take the role that Devo had. I was just trying to make the right play and I think I only missed one shot out of that and Kamani got that rebound and put it back up. Other than that, I was getting fouled. I was just glad he had the confidence in me and we pulled through."
Leading scorer for Kansas was Jalen Wilson with 20 points. He hit two free throws with eight seconds remaining to pull his team within one, 70-69. Kansas then fouled Council sending him back to the charity stripe with 7.1 ticks left on the clock. He made them both.
Wilson was fouled with three seconds remaining in the game. He made the first to pull the Jayhawks within two at 72-70. He tried to miss the second, but it banked into the basket to provide the final score. Arkansas inbounded the ball and the celebration started.
An area Arkansas has struggled much of the season is at the free throw line, but not on Saturday. Arkansas hit 21 of 26 (80.8 percent) compared to just 18 of 25 (72 percent) for Kansas. Arkansas also won the battle of the boards 36-29. Arkansas only hit 3 of 15 (20 percent) from distance and shot 41.4 percent from the field. Kansas countered with 5 of 13 (38.5 percent) from behind the 3-point line and 48 percent from the field.
Council finished with 21 points, six rebounds, four assists and a block. Walsh added 10 points, two rebounds and a pair of assists.
Arkansas 73, Illinois 63
Arkansas took the lead early and then held off a late charge from Illinois to take a 73-63 win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Des Moines, Iowa, at Wells Fargo Arena and now will face Kansas on Saturday.
The Razorbacks led 36-26 at intermission and both teams scored 37 in the second half. Eric Musselman was pleased to see his team get past Illinois.
"The first basket of the game was a post up to (Coleman) Hawkins and then after that we played great basketball," Musselman said. "I was really proud of our team for leading 37 minutes. We were able to survive their run in the second half."
In addition to not surrendering the lead late, which has been an issue for Arkansas, they also were successful at the free throw line much to the delight of Musselman.
"Obviously 22 for 29 from the foul line you know shooting 76 percent in a big game, a win or go home game," Musselman said. "John Daly will be happy. He gives me texts after every game about our free throw shooting. I'm sure John will give me a positive text tonight on our foul shooting."
The Razorbacks won the battle of the boards as well 43-34. Ricky Council IV led the way with team leading 18 points and 10 rebounds. In addition, Makhi Mitchell had seven rebounds to go with his nine points and two blocks off the bench.
"But our rebounding was a big key," Musselman said. "It felt like Illinois was so long, so tall, maybe one of the most, if not the most, athletic team in the Big Ten. I thought we did a phenomenal job."
Illinois got to within five, 62-57, on a RJ Melendez dunk with 2:30 remaining in the game. Things at that point were getting tense for the Razorbacks, but then Council made a layup and two free throws to push the lead back to a comfortable margin, 66-57, with 1:18 remaining. Musselman talked about the key to closing out the game and holding the lead.
"I think we've learned a lot," Musselman said. "This is a team that's still growing. I said before the tournament this is a team that continues to improve. We talk about improvement daily. We work on things to try to get better."
In addition to Council and Mitchell, Arkansas got a big game from Devo Davis who had 16 points, six rebounds, one assist and four steals. Those are good numbers offensively, but that wasn't what Davis wanted to talk about afterward.
"Defense, defense, defense," Davis said. "That’s our team. Just getting stops and getting on a run with our fast break game and I think we did that building our lead."
Anthony Black was also good in his first NCAA Tournament game. He had 12 points, six rebounds, one assist, three steals and a block. Jordan Walsh had six points, rebounds, one assist and three steals off the bench. Nick Smith Jr. struggled on the night with just six points and one steal on 2 of 10 shooting. Kamani Johnson got the start and played 12 minutes finishing with five points and five rebounds.
Illinois was topped by Terrence Shannon Jr. with 20 points. Melendez added 10 points and six boards. Hawkins also had 10 points.