UConn left no doubt. It ended the Arkansas basketball season in dominant fashion Thursday night in the Sweet 16.
The Razorbacks never led and trailed by double digits for nearly 30 minutes at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, suffering an ugly 88-65 loss to the Huskies, who treated them no differently than they did Iona and St. Mary’s in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
It is the fourth-largest margin of defeat in the Big Dance in UA history, while UConn — which is seeking its fifth national title in 25 years — moves on to the Elite Eight with a 20.7-point average margin of victory in its first three games.
This game was close for only about eight minutes, during which the Razorbacks kept things within a possession or two, but the Huskies quickly asserted their dominance.
Arkansas had no answer for UConn defensively, so when it went 4 minutes and 41 seconds without scoring in the first half, the game was effectively over. A 14-0 run during that stretch blew open what was still a three-point game and helped the Huskies briefly double up the score 34-17.
“We knew we had to come out real fast on them,” UConn guard Jordan Hawkins said. “They’re a really physical team, but we had to come out with a first punch. That’s how you come out with teams like that. That’s what we did.”
Not much went right for the Razorbacks.
UConn shot a scorching 60.7% (17 of 28) from the field in the first half. They got hot from beyond the arc for a couple of minutes, but most of the Huskies’ damage came on easy looks around the rim.
According to the official stat broadcast, all but one of UConn’s 13 two-point baskets came at the rim, as it was 8 of 10 on layups and 4 of 5 on dunks. Arkansas, on the other hand, was just 5 of 10 on layups. That led to a 24-12 advantage in paint points for the Huskies.
On the rare occasions UConn actually missed shots, it usually grabbed the rebound. It had seven offensive boards, leading to eight second-chance points, compared to just four defensive rebounds by Arkansas. That was part of an overall plus-13 first-half rebounding advantage for the Huskies.
“They’re pretty tough,” Kamani Johnson said. “They’re a big team, physical team. Their guards, all five of them crashed the boards. They’re a pretty tough team to rebound with, but I think we just kind of beat ourselves today on the glass in just effort and defense overall. We’re a much better team than the way we played today.”
After halftime, UConn quickly stretched its lead to 29 and pretty much coasted the rest of the way. It led by 20-plus points for all but 1 minute and 46 seconds in the second half.
When the game finally ended, the Razorbacks had shot just 31.7% from the floor. The Huskies missed four of their last six shots in garbage time, but still shot 57.4% — including 9 of 20 (45%) from 3-point range.
“You have to tip your hat off to them,” Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said. “Not a good combination when you’re not shooting the ball or converting from the field, and then the other team is shooting at a 60 percent clip and is making 3s.”
It was such a thorough beatdown by UConn that no amount of “what ifs” — questionable officiating, a bad bounce here or there, or even the health of Trevon Brazile — would have changed the result.
The Huskies proved they were the superior team and much closer to their No. 2 national ranking in late-December than their No. 4 seed in the West Region, which they’ll have a chance to win – and clinch a spot in the Final Four – Saturday against Gonzaga.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that the Razorbacks ended the year in the Sweet 16, a stage on which they hadn’t appeared in 25 years before back-to-back Elite Eights the last two seasons, despite limping into the NCAA Tournament as an 8 seed and being pair with defending national champion Kansas in the second round.
“You never want to go out like that…but looking back on it, I’m just proud of my young guys and how they fought,” Johnson said. “We went through a roller coaster this year, a tough season for us, and I’m just proud about how they fought. It’s misery right now because we lost, but when you look back on it, this group, we made it to the Sweet 16 and we’re doing something special in Arkansas and we’re kind of building on that.”
The Razorbacks’ Last Gasp
It made a few free throws, but it wasn’t until more than six minutes into the second half that Arkansas finally knocked down a shot.
By the time Anthony Black made a corner 3, UConn’s lead had grown to 29. With less than 14 minutes remaining, the Razorbacks were already in desperation mode and resorted to some full-court pressure.
For a few possessions, it worked. The Huskies turned it over three straight times without crossing halfcourt and, in a span of 27 seconds, Arkansas had put 10 points on the board.
The last of those turnovers was the result of a technical foul on Andre Jackson Jr., who pushed Black before the ball was inbounded. As great of a stretch it was, it just cut the deficit to 19.
UConn answered with back-to-back 3s, the second of which came after an offensive rebound, and that was all she wrote for Arkansas.
An Ode to Anthony Black
Even as Eric Musselman emptied his bench in the closing minutes of the blowout, Anthony Black was still on the floor, hustling for rebounds and playing hard on defense.
Despite battling numerous injuries, the latest of which required him to spend a lot of time with a boot on his left foot, the freshman still played 37 minutes in a game that got out of hand early. It wasn’t until there was just 1:21 remaining that he finally checked out.
Black finished with a team-high 20 points on 5 of 12 shooting, 5 steals, 4 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 turnovers. He knocked down 1 of 3 attempts from beyond the arc and made 9 of 11 free throws.
After the final buzzer, he left the court in tears and with injured teammate Trevon Brazile’s arm around him. That will likely be the final time fans see Black in an Arkansas basketball uniform, as he’s a projected lottery pick in this summer’s NBA Draft.
He, along with teammate Nick Smith Jr. and potentially Jordan Walsh, will join Moses Moody as the only one-and-dones in UA history — and what a season it was.
Even with all of the shots to the head he took throughout the season and aforementioned various injuries he dealt with, Black was the only player to start all 36 games this season. He played a UA freshman-record 1,253 minutes, which ranks behind only Sidney Moncrief (1,293), Ron Brewer (1,291) and Joe Kleine (1,289) on the school’s single-season list (since 1977-78), according to HogStats.
Black also broke the UA freshman record for total steals (74) and steals per game (2.1), plus finished seventh in total points (460), seventh in total rebounds (182) and third in total assists (141).
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
With the loss, the Razorbacks’ run in the NCAA Tournament ends in the Sweet 16. They finished with a 22-14 overall record.
The focus now shifts to the 2023-24 Arkansas basketball roster, which will likely look much different than the current version. Kamani Johnson is the only play who has exhausted his eligibility, but Nick Smith Jr and Anthony Black are widely projected as lottery picks in this summer’s NBA Draft.
Several other players — such as Ricky Council IV, Trevon Brazile and Jordan Walsh — could also potentially declare, while the rest of the team will be on transfer portal watch, as Eric Musselman is known for extensive roster turnover.
As things currently stand, the only additions for the Razorbacks are five-star signees Baye Fall and Layden Blocker. Other newcomers will come from the transfer portal.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- Arkansas has only three other NCAA Tournament losses by more than Thursday’s 23-point margin against UConn. Its worst was a 35-point loss to Cincinnati in 1958, followed by a 31-point loss to North Carolina in 2008 and a 27-point loss to Oklahoma State in 1945.
- Despite being on the second day of Ramadan, an Islamic period of fasting in which he doesn’t eat or drink from sun up to sun down, UConn star big man Adama Sanogo still nearly notched a double-double against Arkansas. He finished with 18 points on 9 of 11 shooting, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks in just 24 minutes.
- Making his third straight start, Kamani Johnson played 17 minutes before fouling out of his final collegiate game with 7:11 remaining. Although he missed all three of his shots, the super senior still grabbed five rebounds (including four offensive) and dished three assists.
- The freshman trio of Derrian Ford, Joseph Pinion and Barry Dunning Jr. got some run late in the blowout. Ford was first off the bench and was very active on the defense, plus made 1 of 2 free throws and had one rebound and one assist. Pinion missed a pair of 3s, the second of which went in and out, while Dunning scored 4 points on 2 of 3 shooting, including an impressive put-back dunk.
- Former Arkansas golfer and two-time major champion John Daly was at T-Mobile Arena for the game. It was revealed last weekend that he and Eric Musselman frequently text, with free throws being a common topic.
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