DES MOINES, Iowa — Tears were flowing Saturday night. They were the happy kind, though, as Arkansas basketball flipped the script and kept its season alive.
Known for their second-half collapses, the Razorbacks rallied from a 12-point deficit to knock off defending national champion Kansas in a wild 72-71 victory at Wells Fargo Arena, sending them to the Sweet 16.
Davonte Davis, the heartbeat of the team who helped Arkansas reach the Elite Eight each of the last two years, was overcome with emotion during an interview on CBS after what was a poetic role reversal.
“I’m glad we came out with the win,” Davis said as tears streamed down his face. “This team has struggled and we figured it out. I’m glad we did at the right time and hopefully we continue to do it.”
Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman once again took his shirt off in the immediate celebration and several other Razorbacks were still in tears when reporters were allowed in the locker room.
“I’ve been coaching a long time — that’s as great of a win as I’ve ever been a part of,” Musselman told reporters afterward.
It was an understandable reaction to what was an improbable win for the Razorbacks, as they trailed the top-seeded Jayhawks by eight at halftime and were down 46-34 early in the second half, prompting a rare timeout by Musselman with a little more than 15 minutes remaining.
ESPN analytics gave Arkansas just a 9% chance of winning at that point, but Arkansas started chipping away and eventually used an 11-0 run to briefly take the lead, with a Jordan Walsh 3-pointer making it 52-51 with 8:54 left. It was the first time the Razorbacks were up since it was 2-0.
The Razorbacks leaned heavily on their veterans in the second half, with Davis and Ricky Council IV combining for 32 of their 45 points after halftime.
“When it came down to the stretch, Devo, Ricky, they carried us,” Walsh said. “They used their experience to take the team to the next step at the end of the game. They kept everybody level-headed.”
However, Kansas mostly maintained a slight lead for the next several minutes and still had a 61.5% chance to win when Davis fouled out and Dajuan Harris made 1 of 2 free throws to give it a 65-63 lead with 1:56 left.
The Razorbacks wouldn’t be denied, though. Council knocked down a tough jumper to tie it up and then, after forcing a shot clock violation, he missed one — only for Kamani Johnson to grab the offensive rebound and put it back in.
From there, Arkansas was able to ice it at the charity stripe, with Council making 5 of 6 free throws in the final 23 seconds. After his lone miss, Walsh managed to tip the rebound back to Council, who got fouled again and this time converted both free throws. Instead of it being just a one- or two-point lead, it was a three-point game.
“I remember it tipping off of Jalen Wilson and it coming right to me,” Council said. “I was like, either I can attack this, because I was literally at the free throw line when I got it, or I could pull it out. I just decided to attack. I knew worst-case scenario I was probably going to get fouled.”
Kansas never got the ball back with a chance to win the game. The best it could do was tie, but it opted to attack the basket and ended up making two free throws with 3 seconds left — despite Jalen Wilson trying to intentionally miss the second. Arkansas ran out the clock after the in bound, sending it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year.
“We got some dogs in this locker room,” Johnson said. “We’re so connected right now as a group, I don’t think anybody wanted our season to end. We didn’t really — excuse my language — give a damn if they were the national champs or not. We didn’t want this to be our last game.”
Mr. March Takes Over
For much of the first half, the Razorbacks seemed to settle for low-percentage shots instead of attacking the rim like they have throughout the season.
In fact, half of their first 10 shots were from beyond the arc — and several others were long 2s — and they didn’t make a single one. That contributed to Arkansas shooting just 35.7% (10 of 28) from the floor.
Coming out of the half, though, the Razorbacks got much more aggressive, resulting in them shooting 46.7% (14 of 30) from the floor. A major contributor in that was Mr. March himself, Davonte Davis.
After scoring only four points in the first half, Davis went off after halftime, pouring in 21 points on 7 of 9 shooting from the floor and 6 of 7 shooting from the free throw line.
“Coach Muss wanted us to get downhill, so I think getting downhill helped me, helped the other guys,” Davis said. “It created for others, as well, because with their defense they play, they do a lot of switching. We wanted to make sure we just got downhill in the second half. We knew we weren’t doing it the first half as much as we could. I think once we got downhill, everything started to catch up for us.”
At one point, before they went on their run, Davis nearly single-handedly kept the Razorbacks in the game by scoring 10 straight points. Some of his layups were his patented high-degree of difficulty attempts that found a way to fall through the hoop.
“Devo with his snake dribble, going right, coming back left, swinging hook shot, off the wrong foot, pretty amazing, but he does it all the time,” Musselman said.
“Davis played out of this world, really made a lot of shots, but we knew he was good at doing that,” acting Kansas basketball coach Norm Roberts said.
Including the first half, Davis finished with 25 points — the most he’s ever scored in an NCAA Tournament game and one shy of his career high set against Oklahoma last season.
He did it on an efficient 9 of 15 shooting, which included 1 of 4 from beyond the arc, and added 8 rebounds before fouling out. Foul trouble limited him to 14 minutes in the first half and 31 for the game.
“He’s just a gritty dude,” teammate Anthony Black said. “He won’t lose. He’s not going to let us lose. I just love playing with a dude like that. He was great for us, going downhill, defending his butt off and just making great plays.”
Even after he went to the bench with five fouls at the 1:56 mark, Davis remained engaged and was very vocal.
“He played huge, refusing to lose, the grit on the bench when he fouled out,” assistant Gus Argenal said on the UA postgame radio show. “He was coaching, telling us what was going on. … That’s what a leader does and he’s our leader.”
The 25 points he scored Saturday moved Davis past the likes of Darrell Walker, J.D. Notre, Marvin Delph, Ron Brewer, Corey Beck and Dwight Stewart on the UA’s all-time NCAA Tournament scoring list.
He now ranks ninth with 129 points in the Big Dance. The list of players who’ve scored more is a who’s who of legendary Razorbacks: Corliss Williamson (303), Todd Day (240), Scotty Thurman (224), Lee Mayberry (184), Oliver Miller (159), Sidney Moncrief (153), Clint McDaniel (151) and Lenzie Howell (142).
“Devo Davis is a pro,” teammate Kamani Johnson said. “I don’t know what the noise has been about, I don’t really pay attention to the mock drafts, but if any NBA team wants a dog, you’re going to go get Devo Davis.”
Council Takes the Reins
In the first half, the Razorbacks’ biggest scoring threat was Ricky Council IV, who was actually the only player on either team in double figures at the break. He had 10 points.
However, as Davonte Davis heated up in the second half, Council gladly took a back seat on offense. He told reporters that he just camped out in the corner, waiting to crash the boards in case his teammate missed — which wasn’t often.
Having played all but 38 seconds in the first round game two days later and every last second of Saturday’s game, the strategy allowed Council to conserve his energy for defense. It also likely contributed to him still having something in the tank when Davis fouled out.
“Coach looked over at me and gave me a little nod and I was like, ‘Okay. I gotta take it over,’” Council said.
That’s just what he did. On the very next possession, he drove to the block and hit a tough turnaround jumper that tied the game with 1:43 left. He did miss a mid-range jumper that would have given Arkansas the lead, but instead, Kamani Johnson put it back in after an offensive rebound.
From that point on, Council drove to the basket and got fouled. As mentioned above, he knocked down all but one of six free throws, essentially icing the victory.
“We have a lot of good players, so once Devo went out, he was the hot hand, Ricky was the second hot hand tonight, so we trusted Ricky,” Black said. “Ricky carried us to the promised land, getting to the free throw line.”
Council scored 11 of his 21 points in the game’s final five minutes, giving Arkansas the clutch performance it had been looking for all season in many close losses.
“That’s why Ricky was brought here, because he wanted to play on the biggest stage,” Argenal said. “We talked a lot about that. He stepped up. That was his moment right there with everybody watching him — having the ball in his hands a couple of times to finish the game.”
Shutting Down Gradey Dick
A major key to Arkansas having a chance to pull off the upset late was its defense, particularly when it absolutely needed stops.
Kansas didn’t make a single field goal in the final 3:48, missing both of its attempts. It did get to the free throw line several times, but it also turned the ball over twice.
Big 12 Player of the Year Jalen Wilson scored 20 points for the Jayhawks, with nearly half of them coming at the charity stripe (where he was 9 of 11), but the Razorbacks effectively shut down their second-leading scorer.
Coming into the game averaging 14.3 points, Arkansas held star freshman Gradey Dick to half of that Saturday. The projected lottery pick did grab 7 rebounds, but scored only 7 points on just 3 of 9 shooting from the floor.
“We were really focused on Grady Dick,” Argenal said. “We held him to seven points. That was huge for us. We knew that Wilson was going to get tough shots. It was a matter if we could stop some of these peripheral guys.”
Perhaps most impressive was the fact that Dick was only 1 of 3 from beyond the arc. It was the fewest 3-point attempts he’s taken in more than a month and about half of the 5.8 he usually takes.
Shooting 40.4% from deep, Dick is the kind of player who can get hot and almost beat a team by himself. The Razorbacks didn’t give him that chance.
“We just wanted to give no air space, obviously, to Gradey Dick,” Musselman said. “He’s an incredible shooter, one of the best shooters in college basketball. The general philosophy was not to allow three point attempts. That was the biggest thing, is to stay attached.”
Anthony Black, Arkansas’ 6-foot-7 point guard, was his primary defender and did an excellent job of staying on him.
“We’ve dealt with that all year, but they have some long athletes that made it tough on him to get shots,” acting Kansas basketball coach Norm Roberts said. “I don’t think we screened as well as we wanted to for him, maybe we could have ran a few more things for him, but they did nullify him a little bit.”
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
With the win, the Razorbacks have reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year after failing to do so the 23 tournaments prior to Eric Musselman’s arrival.
In the Sweet 16, they’ll play the winner of the UConn-St. Mary’s matchup, which is scheduled for 5:10 p.m. CT Sunday and will be televised on TNT.
“We’re not done,” Kamani Johnson said. “We’re not satisfied at all. We have four more to go. We know what we can do. We know what this team is set up to do.”
The Huskies are a 4 seed who knocked off 13 seed Iona — and Rick Pitino — in the first round. They are 26-8 overall and finished tied for fourth in the Big East.
The Gaels are a 5 seed who beat 12 seed VCU to improve to 27-7 overall. They tied for the regular-season WCC title and earned the No. 1 seed in that conference’s tournament, but lost to Gonzaga by 26 in the title game.
Times have not yet been announced, but Arkansas’ next game will be Thursday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Potential Elite Eight opponents include 2 seed UCLA, 3 seed Gonzaga and 6 seed TCU.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- Kansas basketball coach Bill Self missed his fifth straight game as he recovers from a heart catheterization. Assistant coach Norm Roberts continued to fill in as the acting head coach.
- Eric Musselman is now 8-2 in the NCAA Tournament with Arkansas basketball, which gives him more wins in three seasons than the Razorbacks had in the 24 years prior to his arrival combined.
- Even though it trails the all-time series 8-6, Arkansas has now won five of its last seven matchups with Kansas, dating back to 1976.
- Arkansas is just the fourth team in NCAA Tournament history to eliminate the top seed in its region in back-to-back years, joining Duke (1988-90), UCLA (2006-07) and Butler (2010-11).
- The eight-point halftime lead is the largest the Jayhawks have ever blown to lose an NCAA Tournament game. Ironically, the Razorbacks’ largest blown halftime lead was 12 points — against Kansas in 1991.
- Kamani Johnson played just 19 minutes and scored only 4 points, but he grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds — six of which were on the offensive end. Those six offensive boards are tied for the sixth-most ever by an Arkansas player in the NCAA Tournament, according to HogStats.
- Despite having a boot on his left foot earlier in the week, Anthony Black played nearly 72 of a possible 80 minutes in the Razorbacks’ wins over Illinois and Kansas. He appeared to re-aggravate the injury Saturday, but missed less than 3 total minutes. “I mean, I’m hurt,” Black said. “I’m not gonna lie, I’m pretty hurt. But it’s not going to stop me from playing, so I’ll just take it day by day and hope it gets better.”
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