Ricky Council IV scored 18 points and Arkansas survived some anxious moments in the second half against an Illinois team that wouldn’t go away, holding on to beat the Illini 73-63 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.
Devo Davis scored 16 points for the eighth-seeded Razorbacks, who used relentless defense and rebounding to build big leads but couldn’t get comfortable until the final minute. Arkansas (21-13) faces top-seeded Kansas on Saturday in the West Region second round.
Terrence Shannon Jr., scoreless in the first 16 minutes, finished with 20 points to lead the Illini (20-13). It was the first time in five tournament appearances since 2011 that Illinois had failed to make it past the first round.
On paper, this matchup was one of the closest of the first round. The teams’ season stat sheets were almost identical, and had a similar trend: Arkansas had lost six of its last nine and Illinois six of its last 10.
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The Razorbacks had a double-digit lead midway through the first half, but no lead has been secure this season. In seven games they blew leads with droughts of five minutes or more.
That didn’t happen this time, although it looked like it might when Arkansas couldn’t connect what could have been the knockout blow with 2 1/2 minutes to play. Anthony Black intercepted Coleman Hawkins’ cross pass and Council missed the dunk on the fast break when he would have been better off scoring it. The missed play left Arkansas coach Eric Musselman waving his arms and yelling.
Council atoned with a layup to end a 4-minute, 13-second scoring drought, and his two free throws with 1:18 remaining put the Razorbacks up 68-57.
Arkansas, which made it to the Elite Eight the past two years, led as many as 14 points in the first half and went into the locker room ahead 36-26 after a rushed play from under the basket where Kamani Johnson battled three Illinois players for a loose ball
The play defined the hardscrabble contest. Jackson took the ball and put it in the basket. Nick Smith Jr. was there to celebrate when Johnson spun to go up the court, playfully shoving his teammate in the chest. Johnson slipped and fell and exchanged smiles with Smith as he got up. A timeout followed, and the Arkansas faithful began a shrill «call of the pigs,» putting some extra oomph into their «Wooooo. Pig. Souie!»
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Arkansas’ defense was on point from the start, holding the Illini to 28% shooting in the first half and 38.5% throughout the game. The Hogs scored 19 points of Illinois’ 17 turnovers.
On one of Illinois’ many empty possessions, Hawkins ran out on the shot clock before he could get the ball to the rim. He turned to an officer and tried to show him claw marks on the inside of his left arm, presumably made by Jordan Walsh. The referee was not interested.
Illinois: Illini fell to 1-8 all-time against teams from the Southeastern Conference in the NCAA Tournament. Matthew Mayer, who won a national championship with Baylor in 2021 and was the Illini’s second leading scorer this season, missed all six of his shots and was limited to two points.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks are now 6-1 against the Big Ten in the tournament since 1983 and set up for another deep run if they can defeat the Jayhawks.
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Each team had a shot lodged between the rim and the backboard in the first five minutes.
Kamani Johnson’s layup attempt for Arkansas went up but didn’t go down, and a couple of minutes later, Terrence Shannon’s 3-pointer from the corner for Illinois also jammed.
UNTIL NEXT TIME
Arkansas’ last meeting with Kansas in the NCAA Tournament was in the 1991 Elite Eight, a 93-81 Jayhawks victory.