DES MOINES, Iowa — Arkansas basketball has had a knack for blowing leads. Illinois is a second-half team. It was a recipe for disaster, but disaster never came.
The Razorbacks saw their 17-point lead dwindle all the way down to five in the closing minutes, but made just enough plays — and free throws — to hang on for a 73-63 win over the Fighting Illini at Wells Fargo Arena and advance to the second round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament.
It got a little hairy at times, but Arkansas avoided losing a sixth game in which it led by double-digits and prevented Illinois from rallying back like it did against Northwestern — which it trailed by 18 at one point — just three weeks ago.
“We have learned a lot,” Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said. “This is a team that is still growing, and I said even before the tournament that I feel like this is a team that continues to improve.
“There has been other teams that have plateaued. Maybe a couple of our teams at Nevada we were old veteran guys, and maybe at some point we were just trying to save legs. But this is a team that’s of continuous improvement.”
The Razorbacks certainly didn’t make it easy on themselves. A quick eight-point spurt by RJ Melendez, who hit a pair of 3s sandwiched around a layup, quickly got the lead down to single digits and things starting going wrong with about three minutes left.
Even with the margin still at nine points at the final media timeout, TBS sideline reporter Allie LaForce overheard Illinois basketball coach Brad Underwood telling his team, “Arkansas is playing not to lose. Let’s take advantage.”
Sure enough, the Fighting Illini were in the midst of a 7-0 run that was aided by a failed alley-oop, as Nick Smith Jr. lobbed a pass to Ricky Council IV in a fast break and the high-flyer couldn’t finish.
“I kind of allow our team to do that stuff,” Musselman said. “I’ve never told them not to throw lobs. I just thought maybe we could have milked the clock on that particular possession, but, hey, you give a team offensive freedom and you’re very demanding defensively. That’s the philosophy that we have always had, allow the guys to have more fun and freedom offensively, but do exactly as we talk about from a scouting standpoint defensively.”
Had he made the play, not only would it have had a chance to land in SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays, but it likely would have been the final dagger.
Instead, Illinois grabbed the rebound and quickly got to the charity stripe. Terrence Shannon Jr. knocked down a pair of free throws and then Nick Smith Jr. turned it over in the back court, leading to an easy dunk — all within a span of 13 seconds.
That prompted a rare timeout by Musselman. Even with everything going on, Council told reporters afterward that the vibe in the huddle was good.
“We all wanted to win, and just (focused on) keeping our foot on the gas and not giving up,” Council said. “Coach gave us positive energy and we gave positive energy to each other, so we just didn’t let up. We ended up extending the lead.”
It looked like Illinois would have a chance to make it a one-possession game when Jordan Walsh couldn’t convert a couple of second-chance opportunities under the basket, but Davonte Davis snuck up from behind Coleman Hawkins and poked the ball free.
The ball ended up in Council’s hands and he took it all the way to the basket for a layup — Arkansas’ only field goal in the final 5:49. After Anthony Black blocked a 3-pointer by Luke Goode, the Razorbacks were able to ice the game at the free throw line, making 9 of 10 in the final 78 seconds.
“That’s kind of been our Achilles’ heel this year,” Johnson said. “We’ve been up and letting teams get back in it, but I’m really, really, really proud of this group, about how they didn’t let this one slip. I think it was a confidence booster if anything going into the next game.”
For all but Davis and Johnson, it was most of the team’s first time playing — and winning — in the NCAA Tournament.
“We all wanted to win,” Davis said. “We wanted it really bad, and me and Coach, the other guys that’s been in this position before has been teaching and preaching, like this is going to feel good if we pull it off.
“I’m glad the guys that haven’t experienced it got this experience, and we’re going to get ready for the next game for sure.”
March Madness Legend
There’s something about the NCAA Tournament that brings out the best in Davonte Davis.
For the sixth time in nine career games in the Big Dance, the junior guard scored in double figures Thursday afternoon. He finished with 16 points on 7 of 14 shooting, plus added 6 rebounds, 4 steals and 1 assist — despite sitting the final 10:23 of the first half with two fouls.
Davis is now averaging 11.6 points on 46.9% shooting, 4.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.2 steals in the NCAA Tournament.
“Devo is a March Madness legend,” teammate Nick Smith Jr. said. “He’s done a lot of stuff for this program in March Madness and even throughout the regular season. We trust Vo. He’s one of the leaders on our team and probably the voice of this team.”
Although he may have had bigger moments in the past, such as hitting the game-winner to beat Oral Roberts his freshman year, what he did against Illinois was probably his best overall performance in the NCAA Tournament.
He hit a big 3-pointer early in the second half to help halt the Illini’s initial surge and then had the big steal that helped the Razorbacks pull away in the final two minutes.
“He’s got great mental toughness, and I think he knows that I really believe in him and really trust in him, whether he’s on the ball, whether he’s off the ball,” Musselman said. “There is oftentimes where there is just a connection and a belief that he’s going to come up in big moments, and certainly tonight was another one that he was able to do that for us with his scoring.”
Rare Start for Kamani Johnson
In a surprise move, Eric Musselman opted for experience in Arkansas’ first game at the NCAA Tournament, inserting Kamani Johnson into the starting lineup for just the fifth time this season.
Johnson told Best of Arkansas Sports after the game that he moved into the starting lineup at practice following the SEC Tournament. The reasoning was simple and he knew his purpose.
“My mindset going in is just set the tone, bring the energy and I know we got the twins coming behind me and (Jalen Graham),” Johnson said. “I’m just there to set the tone and let people know what we’re about from the jump and then I let the other guys take over.”
That’s just what he did. By the time he checked out, about two minutes into the game, he already had a couple of rebounds and appeared to block a shot, although he wasn’t credited with one in the final stats.
Late in the first half, foul trouble forced him back into the game and he made his biggest contribution to the game – grabbing a couple of offensive boards before sticking it back in to give the Razorbacks a 10-point lead just 41 seconds until halftime.
Despite playing just 5 minutes and 41 seconds, Arkansas was plus-6 with Johnson on the court in the first half. He ended up finishing with 5 points and 5 rebounds in 12 minutes.
“If you could sum it up, you’re talking a player that played 12 minutes and had four offensive rebounds — Illinois had three as a team,” Musselman said. “I thought Kamani did a phenomenal job for us setting the tone early on the offensive glass. He gives us a physicality as well.”
Nick Smith Jr. Struggles
It wasn’t all great for Arkansas basketball, as star freshman Nick Smith Jr. turned in one of his worst games of the season.
After shooting 6 of 20 in the Razorbacks’ loss to Texas A&M, the projected lottery pick followed it up with a 6-point, 2-of-10 showing against Illinois. Asked by Best of Arkansas Sports to assess his play, he didn’t sugarcoat anything.
“Oh, I played terrible,” Smith said bluntly in the locker room after the game. “But at the end of the day, we won the game, so I ain’t really too messed up on it. But I have another opportunity against Kansas, so we’ll see what happens.”
Smith was specifically unhappy with his shooting and some late defensive lapses, but described them as a “quick fix” that should be taken care of before Saturday’s game.
“Probably just mechanics, the way I move… Just having a feel for the game,” Smith said. “It was kind of weird starting off for me, but I just have to be prepared next time. I felt this environment, so next game I’ll be more prepared to play.”
From Kamala Harris to John Daly
One statistic that should make Arkansas basketball fans happy is the Razorbacks shooting 22 of 29 from the free throw line. At 75.9%, it was their best showing at the free throw line since shooting 82.4% (14 of 17) against Florida on Feb. 18.
In the six games since then, Arkansas had shot just 64.4%. That lowered its season shooting percentage to 69.0% from the line. The performance will probably lead to Musselman receiving an encouraging text from an Arkansas legend.
“Obviously 22 for 29 from the foul line, shooting 76% in big game, a win-or-go-home game — John Daly will be happy,” Musselman said. “He gives me texts after every game about our free throw shooting, so I’m sure he will give me a positive text tonight on our foul shooting.”
That is a stark contrast to the public figure Musselman met to start the day: Vice President Kamala Harris.
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
With the win, the Razorbacks advance to the Round of 32 and will play 1 seed Kansas on Saturday. Tipoff is scheduled for 4:15 p.m. CT and it’ll be televised on CBS.
The Jayhawks are 28-7 after knocking off 16 seed Howard 96-68 in the game immediately before the Arkansas vs Illinois matchup. They entered the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 4 in the AP Poll, having won the Big 12 regular-season title and finishing runner-up in the conference tournament, and are the defending national champions.
It will be the first meeting between Arkansas and Kansas in nearly 17 years, with the Razorbacks winning that matchup 65-64 at the Maui Invitational. The Jayhawks lead the all-time series 8-5 and won the only meeting in the NCAA Tournament, knocking Arkansas out in the Elite Eight in 1991.
The winner of Arkansas vs Kansas will advance to the Sweet 16 in Las Vegas next weekend. They would face the winner of the regional that features 4 seed UConn, 5 seed St. Mary’s, 12 seed VCU and 13 seed Iona. Those teams begin play Friday.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- This was the Razorbacks’ first ever win over Illinois, as they had lost the previous five. The Illini had been Arkansas’ most-played opponent without a win. That honor now belongs to USC, Villanova and New York University, all of whom are 3-0 all-time against the Razorbacks.
- Arkansas is now 7-2 in the NCAA Tournament under head coach Eric Musselman. That matches the Razorbacks’ total wins in the Big Dance in the 24 years prior to his arrival in Fayetteville.
- Random, unique tidbit: Not once, but twice in the game’s first five minutes, a jump ball was called because the ball got stuck between the rim and backboard — commonly known as a “wedgie.” Both teams had one. The first was on a close miss by Kamani Johnson and the second was on a missed 3 by Terrence Shannon Jr.
- After scoring just 12 total points in two games at the SEC Tournament, Ricky Council IV scored a team-high 18 points against Illinois, doing most of his damage at the free throw line (11 of 12). He also grabbed 10 rebounds, giving him just his third career double-double. The other two came when he was at Wichita State.
- With 18 on Thursday, Council now has 543 total points this season. That is the second-most ever by a first-year Arkansas player. He moved past Dusty Hannahs (529), Moses Moody (539) and Scotty Thurman (540). He now trails only Martin Terry (633).
- Freshman Jordan Walsh’s stat line doesn’t jump off the page, with only 6 points, 4 rebounds and 3 steals in 27 minutes, but he posted a team-best plus-22. “He did everything,” Musselman said. “He got loose balls, he altered shots, he ran the floor hard both offensively and defensively, gave great support defense to his teammates. I thought he put great heat on the ball, great pressure on the ball. He rushed the quarterback.”
- The Razorbacks had just four assists as a team Thursday. It’s tied for their fewest in a win since at least 2010-11, according to Sports Reference. The other time they did it was earlier this year, in a win over Troy.
- The statistic Eric Musselman said was as “crucial” as any to the Razorbacks winning was the fact they forced 17 turnovers, including 12 steals. “We just felt with their size that if we didn’t put pressure and pick up three-quarters court that we were doing ourselves a disservice,” Musselman said. “(Terrence) Shannon is one of the hardest covers in college basketball because of his versatility. He’s a great scorer, and we just felt like if we could somehow try to speed them up a little bit that it might be to our advantage.”
- With three more against Illinois, Anthony Black now has a UA freshman-record 68 steals this season. He entered the game tied with Kareem Reid (1995-96) for first place on that list.
Arkansas vs Illinois Highlights
Arkansas vs Illinois Postgame Interviews
Arkansas vs Illinois Box Score
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