After 3 scoreless outings, Ellis rebounded vs. hometown Blue Devils

Arkansas guard El Ellis (3) goes up for a shot during a game against Duke on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — El Ellis and the Duke Blue Devils share the same hometown.

Ellis, a senior guard for the University of Arkansas, is from Durham, N.C., where the Duke campus covers 8,693 acres.

Growing up in Durham, Ellis said, made him a fan of the Blue Devils, who have won five national championships since 1991.

“Of course, no question,” Ellis said of rooting for Duke. “But when I got to college, I wasn’t a Duke fan no more.”

Ellis certainly wasn’t a Duke fan on Wednesday night, when he helped the Razorbacks beat the No. 7 Blue Devils 80-75 before a Walton Arena record crowd of 20,344.

“For me, I really was just excited to be out there and play,” said Ellis, who transferred to Arkansas this year from Louisville. “The crowd played a big part, though.”

Ellis played on Louisville teams that had a combined 17-47 record the previous two years, including 4-28 last season.

The Razorbacks (5-3) have won more games than the Cardinals did all of last season, when Ellis averaged 17.7 points and 4.4 assists.

“It feels really good to be on a winning team and to play with guys that are really good players as well,” said Ellis, who had 9 points, 6 assists and 3 rebounds without a turnover on Wednesday night in 31 minutes. “To get that win against Duke, that’s big for me.

“I was in the ACC. I played against Duke multiple times and couldn’t get the win. Tonight, to be able to get that win, it felt really good.”

Razorbacks forward Trevon Brazile, who had 19 points and 11 rebounds against the Blue Devils, transferred to Arkansas last year from Missouri. The Tigers were 12-21 in Brazile’s only season at Missouri.

“I feel like me and El kind of came from the same situation,” Brazile said. “At Missouri my freshman year, we weren’t winning games.

“Just coming to a program that’s about winning, it’s a good feeling whenever you beat a top opponent, coming from a team that doesn’t win as much.”

Ellis’ Louisville teams were 0-2 against Duke, but he played well in both games.

When the Blue Devils beat the Cardinals 74-65 in 2022, Ellis had 18 points, 2 assists and 1 steal. His stats were better last season when he had 21 points, 7 assists and 2 steals in Duke’s 79-62 victory over Louisville.

After Ellis struggled last week in the Battle 4 Atlantis in Nassau, The Bahamas — where he was scoreless with three assists in 36 minutes against Stanford, Memphis and North Carolina — he got a boost from Razorbacks assistant coach Keith Smart.

“Man, I was in my head in The Bahamas,” Ellis said. “Not really playing my game, being indecisive.

“Coach Smart sent me clips of me from last year when I played against Duke and he just told me to play my game. Go out there and play confident and really just look for my teammates.”

Ellis was back in the starting lineup against the Blue Devils and had assists on two of the Razorbacks’ first three baskets resulting in a layup by Davonte Davis and three-pointer by Brazile.

“Started the game off looking for my teammates, getting my guys shots,” Ellis said. “When I needed to score, I scored.”

Ellis scored all of his points in the second half after shooting 0 of 4 in the first half.

Combined with Ellis shooting 0 of 10 in the Battle 4 Atlantis, he was 0 of 14 from the field over a stretch of 3 1/2 games.

Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said he whispered on the bench to his son, Michael, an assistant coach, about Ellis, “He’s 0 of 14 his last 14 attempts. I’ve got to make a decision.’ ”

Musselman decided to go with Ellis in the second half, when he played all 20 minutes and rewarded the show of confidence from his coach by hitting 3 of 5 shots with 4 assists, 2 rebounds and 1 blocked shot. He hit 3 of 4 free throws in the final 37 seconds to help the Razorbacks hold off the Blue Devils.

“I do think it’s clear that when El plays good we’re a much better team,” Musselman said. “Whether I have to stick with him if he’s struggling in a game, that might be the case and try to let him play through it a little bit more than I did in The Bahamas.”

Ellis averaged 14.3 points and 3.8 assists in starting the Razorbacks’ first four games, but in their last game before traveling to Nassau, he had 4 turnovers without an assist while scoring 19 points in North Carolina-Greensboro’s 78-72 victory at Arkansas.

Musselman said he was looking for better ball movement, and Ellis played 6 minutes off the bench in Arkansas’ 77-74 double overtime victory over Stanford in their Battle 4 Atlantis opener and shot 0 of 4 with a turnover.

In Arkansas’ next two games — an 84-79 loss to Memphis and 87-72 loss to No. 17 North Carolina — Ellis played 13 and 17 minutes off the bench, respectively, and shot a combined 0 of 6 with 2 turnovers. He didn’t have an assist in the tournament.

“Just got to be mentally strong,” Ellis said of responding to adversity as he did against Duke. “There are going to be bad games.

“You’ve just got to be able to push through it and bounce back. I feel like I did that.”

Arkansas freshman guard Layden Blocker averaged 8 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2 steals and 24 minutes in the Battle 4 Atlantis games to pick up a lot of playing time that had been going to Ellis.

But with junior guard Tramon Mark recovering from a back injury after he scored 34 points against North Carolina and unable to play Wednesday night, Musselman started Ellis and brought Blocker off the bench.

“Layden did a great job in Nassau, but there’s no way we’re going to win tonight without El picking up some of T-Mark’s points,” Musselman said.

Blocker played well against Duke with 9 points, 3 rebounds and 2 steals in 21 minutes. But the Razorbacks needed a strong game from Ellis to help restore his confidence.

“You hope that players can learn and sit back and evaluate,” Musselman said of how Ellis played after three subpar games. “I thought he was great.”

The Razorbacks had 17 assists on 26 baskets against Duke.

“Nobody cared who scored,” Ellis said. “We were all just sharing the ball. Man, it’s happy when you see the ball go in the basket after you get an assist.

“Really, the game plan was just to move the ball. Run good offense and be aggressive and just take care of the ball. That’s what we did.”

The Razorback from Durham in particular.