Wally Hall is the managing sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock after an honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force, he is a member and past president of the Football Writers Association of America, member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, past president and current executive committee and board member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, and voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year 10 times and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
Like It Is:
Team victory led Razorbacks over Illini
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman celebrates after the Razorbacks defeated Illinois 73-63 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.
DES MOINES, Iowa — Eric Musselman jumped on a chair in front of the loud and proud Arkansas fans and led them in a resounding Hog call.
Wells Fargo Arena — Bud Walton North — was filled with Razorback cheer as the Hogs knocked off Illinois in a first-round NCAA Tournament game that was a defensive battle which Arkansas had the edge in for a 73-63 win and will now face Kansas.
Kansas, where basketball was invented by James Naismith who wrote the sport’s original rule book, are the defending national champions. The Jayhawks may or may not have head coach Bill Self on the bench Saturday with a Sweet 16 appearance at stake, but more on Kansas later.
In one moment, it appeared the Razorbacks were going to deliver a knockout punch when Makhi Mitchell hit a reverse layup for a 51-36 lead that had Illinois head coach Brad Underwood grabbing a much-needed timeout with 12:23 to play.
More from WholeHogSports: How to watch, listen to Arkansas-Kansas game
Just seconds later came an official media timeout, but he was desperate.
Then it looked like history was going to kick in when the Fighting Illini went on an 8-0 run in just 1:15, and minutes later came a 7-0 sprint that resulted from three consecutive turnovers. Just like that, Arkansas was holding on to a 62-57 lead and staring at its eighth loss of the season after leading in the second half.
Ricky Council stepped up big at the right time. The transfer from Wichita State had 10 points in the first half, but the Illini shifted their second half defense to keying on him. He didn’t score again until there was 1:38 to play when he converted a Davonte Davis steal into a layup.
He hit two free throws 20 seconds later and two more 24 seconds after that for a 68-59 lead with 54 seconds left to play. He got two more that put the Hogs safely into the next round.
In the final 1:18, Arkansas made 9 of 10 free throws, including one by Mitchell and two by the unsung hero of a game that came down to hustle and muscle, and Jordan Walsh was critical.
The freshman did things that don’t make a box score shine. While he had seven rebounds, it was the things he did all over the court that made a huge difference, like keeping rebounds alive, making three steals and pressure defense that made Musselman smile.
He was clutch at a time when the Hog transmission could have started to slip.
On a day when Nick Smith appeared to be off, it took a total team effort.
Saying Musselman was prepared for Illinois would be an understatement. He got matchups, and in a bit of a surprise he started senior Kamani Johnson, who in 12 solid minutes scored 5 points and grabbed 5 rebounds.
Davis was all out on both ends of the court, scoring 16 — Council led the way with 18 and had a team high 10 rebounds — and the shortest Razorback to play at 6-4 had 6 rebounds and 4 of Arkansas’ 12 steals.
On a day when No. 15 seed Princeton beat No. 2 Arizona, and No. 13 seed Furman topped No. 4 Virginia, Arkansas found a way to win at a juncture when things have gone south, literally.
It was the SEC’s second win of the day.
Now the Hogs have No. 1 seeded Kansas, and most won’t give the Razorbacks much of a chance, just like they didn’t last year when Arkansas went into the West Regional and faced overall No. 1 Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 in San Francisco.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Hogs advanced to their second consecutive Elite Eight with a 74-68 win over one of the more elite teams in the past 30 years.
They get their shot at Kansas because they played as a team.
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