Razorbacks deny comeback, set up Saturday game with Kansas

Arkansas guard Anthony Black dunks during an NCAA Tournament game against Illinois on Thursday, March 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.

DES MOINES, Iowa — It was a familiar storyline for the University of Arkansas men’s basketball team and its fans.

Watch the Razorbacks build a lead away from home, then see the other team rally.

It happened again on Thursday in the season’s biggest game when Arkansas moved ahead by 17 points against Illinois with less than 10 minutes left and the Illini cut the deficit to five.

But this time the story had a happy ending for the Razorbacks.

Arkansas held off every challenge Illinois could mount in the second half and the Razorbacks pulled away to win 73-63 in an NCAA Tournament first-round game before 16,745 fans at Wells Fargo Arena.

It was in stark contrast to Texas A&M’s 67-61 victory over Arkansas in the SEC Tournament last Friday when the Aggies rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to hand the Razorbacks (21-13) their seventh loss in which they led by six or more points in the second half.

“It was kind of like deja vu for a while, but we grew up today,” Arkansas senior forward Kamani Johnson said. “If anybody had any doubts about us — and we hear all the noise — we showed we’ve grown up as a team.

“Illinois threw their punches, but we threw them right back and knocked them out.”

Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said the Razorbacks, with 10 newcomers this season, have learned a lot that they put to good use on Thursday.

“This is a team that’s still growing,” Musselman said. “And as I said before the tournament, I think this is a team that continues to improve.”

The Razorbacks, who advanced to play No. 1 seed Kansas in a second-round game on Saturday, led against Illinois for the final 37:15.

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Arkansas extended a 36-26 halftime lead to 55-38 on senior forward Makhi Mitchell’s layup with 10:45 after a steal by freshman forward Jordan Walsh.

Illinois (20-13) got eight consecutive points from RJ Melendez to pull within 55-46 with 8:04 left.

After Arkansas got a three-pointer from junior guard Davonte Davis to push its lead to 62-50, Illinois again fought back and closed with 62-57 with 2:29 left on Melendez’s steal and dunk.

Instead of the Illini completing their comeback, the Razorbacks closed out the game by hitting 9 of 10 free throws in the final 1:21, including 6 of 6 by junior guard Ricky Council.

Council led Arkansas with 18 points and a season-high 10 rebounds and hit 11 of 12 free throws. Davis added 16 points, 6 rebounds and 4 steals.

“Pretty much just flashbacks,” Council said of what motivated the Razorbacks to make sure they didn’t blow another big lead. “We were in this position many times before.

“We’d be up 10, up 12 … and it starts dwindling down and the other team takes the lead. So we just kept that mindset that we’ve got to win the game.

“We all wanted to win and just keep our foot on the gas. Coach gave us positive energy, and we gave positive energy to each other, so we didn’t let up.”

The Razorbacks jumped out to a 23-10 lead as Illinois started 4 of 20 from the field.

“My hat’s off to Arkansas,” Illini Coach Brad Underwood said. “They were better today and they were more assertive.

“I thought their defense early was the difference. We had a hard time getting into our offense, and then every time we made a run, we missed a layup, we turned it over, or we missed free throws.”

Illinois shot 38.5% (20 of 52) from the field, hit 17 of 26 free throws and had 17 turnovers against Arkansas’ stifling man-to-man defense.

The Razorbacks had 12 steals and outscored the Illini 19-11 in points off turnovers.

“We just felt with their size that if we didn’t put pressure and pick them up three-quarters court, we were doing ourselves a disservice,” Musselman said. “I do think the 17 turnovers that were caused and the 12 steals were maybe as crucial as any stats that you look at once the final buzzer sounded.”

Mitchell had 9 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocked shots in 23 minutes off the bench.

Walsh helped fuel Arkansas’ defensive effort and had 6 points, 4 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocked shots in 27 minutes off the bench. Johnson started and played 12 minutes, but made the most of those with 5 points and 5 rebounds.

Senior guard Terrence Shannon led Illinois with 20 points. Melendez, a sophomore guard, and junior forward Coleman Hawkins each scored 10 points.

Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith, who averaged 19.5 points the previous six games, was 2 of 10 from the field and scored four points. But he was as happy as everyone else in the postgame locker room.

“I’m not the only guy that can make plays for this team,” Smith said. “We had a lot of other guys making plays today, and I’m just excited we got the win and be a part of this team.”

The Razorbacks shot 38.1% (24 of 63) from the field, but made up for that by hitting 22 of 29 free throws, out-rebounding the Illini 43-34 and limiting their turnovers to 11.

Arkansas freshman guard Anthony Black, who had 12 points, 6 rebounds and 3 steals on Thursday, summed up the team’s issues after being eliminated in the SEC Tournament when Texas A&M overcame a double-digit lead for the second time this season to beat the Razorbacks.

“That’s kind of what we’ve been doing all year,” Black said glumly in the postgame news conference at Bridgestone Arena. “The last time we played them, we did the same thing.

“We’ve got to stop doing that.”

The Razorbacks stopped doing it against Illinois to keep their season alive.

“We really stayed together a lot better today,” Black said. “I think in some of the past games, we got selfish and tried to put out the fire by ourselves.

“Today we did a really good job on offense getting to the free throw line and stopping their runs with good defense.”

Now the Razorbacks have an opportunity to see if they can get a lead — and hold it — against Kansas.