FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas men’s basketball never tasted so sweet in 25 years.
Because for the first time since Nolan Richardson’s 1996 Razorbacks, Arkansas has ascended to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen.
Adding to Friday’s first-round South Regional victory rallying from a during the first half 14-point deficit to defeat 14th-seeded Colgate, 85-68 in Indianapolis, Coach Eric Musselman’s third-seeded Razorbacks in Sunday’s second round at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis fended off Texas Tech’s rallying Red Raiders, 68-66 to advance to Saturday’s South Regional semifinal against the 15th-seeded Oral Roberts University Golden Eagles, upset winners Friday over second-seeded Ohio State and Sunday over seventh-seeded Florida.
“Words can’t describe it man! Musselman said postgame of Arkansas tasting the Sweet Sixteen. “Myself, the staff, we’re so excited. We’re going to enjoy it tonight and then get right back at it tomorrow morning. I’m so fortunate to coach student-athletes like them. Our chemistry is so good. They genuinely love each other and they love playing with each other.”
Though seeded sixth to Arkansas’ South Regional third, Texas Tech was the Las Vegas betting 2-point favorite ultimately Sunday losing by two.
Arkansas star forward Justin Smith, a game-leading 29 points and 13 rebounds against Colgate and game high 20 points plus six rebounds against Texas Tech, successfully without fouling defended against Kyler Edwards’ game-ending Tech attempt at a game-tying layup rebounded by Razorbacks guard JD Notae.
Leading by two Razorbacks playing a prevent a 3-point shooting defense with Arkansas freshman Davonte “Devo” Davis shadowing Tech top 3-point shooter Mac McClung, they “did a great job walling off,” the 3-point line Musselman said forcing Tech at the last to try for a tie an overtime.
Smith said he and Arkansas point guard Jalen Tate switched assignments before the last shot.
“Edwards was dribbling up and (Terrance) Shannon (Tech’s leading scorer with 20 points but needing 16 shots to score them against Smith) was going to set that screen and they set it up high,” Smith said.
“So me and JT, we communicated and I switched onto him (Edwards) because we really didn’t want them to get a 3, because that would put them up. So I really forced him off the three-point line, switched onto Edwards and he drove it and I was able to get a good contest and he missed it. JD got a great rebound and that was it.”
Musselman marveled at Smith, the senior graduate transfer via Indiana University spectacularly concluding his college career in Indiana.
“Just incredible,” Musselman said. “I mean, 9 of 11 from the field. He’s been so great. He’s such a great team leader for us.”
Smith was far from Arkansas’ lone hero.
While holding McClung to just nine points, Arkansas freshman guard Davis of Jacksonville scored 15 points with six rebounds as did star freshman guard Moses Moody of Little Rock while Tate, 6 of 6 from the free throw line, scored 10 points.
But the Hogs bestowed biggest kudos on the guy who scored just one point. Jaylin Williams, the backup freshman center from Fort Smith Northside who missed the last two games of the SEC regular season and Arkansas’ two SEC Tournament games in covid-19 protocol, and only logged 5:30 off the bench minutes against Colgate, started Sunday for just the third time for these 24-6 Razorbacks and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds in 27:42 and dished a team-high four assists including a length of the court baseball pass for a Davis dunk.
The Hogs have alternated 7-3 Connor Vanover, Williams, and 6-8 Ethan Henderson at center or played a small lineup with 6-7 Smith at center which Smith mostly did against Colgate.
But Williams, a strong 6-10, 245, is Arkansas’ most physical big man and that’s what Musselman figured he must have against Coach Chris Beard’s Red Raiders.
“It was about matchups,” Musselman said “I told my wife yesterday ‘Hey, we’re going to get second-guessed if we don’t win this game, because he really hasn’t started all year. And he missed a lot of time. But I said, ‘I think this is the best decision for us.’ Obviously Texas Tech is a really physical team. I thought we went nose to those with them on the backboards (Tech held a mere 38-36 edge).”
It would have been more than a slight edge minus Williams.
“J-Will, those 10 rebounds,” Smith said. “We don’t win this game without his 10 rebounds. I think he only scored 1 point, but those 10 rebounds really is what won us the game because Coach emphasized at the beginning of the game that rebounding was going to win us the game.”
And those assists.
“Pretty special to lead in assists and also lead in rebounding,” Musselman said. “Just the backdoor cutting is awesome.”
Smith added of Williams: “Utilizing him and his unselfishness, we were able to cut off of him and get easy layups and that helped us build a run.”
Tech had the early run in the first half and led 23-13, but Arkansas scored 20 of the half’s final 28 points to lead, 33-31 at intermission.
With 9:04 left in the game Davis’ 3-point play had the Hogs flying up 13, 56-43.
But Tech, a Final Four team two seasons, ago didn’t wilt.
The Red Raiders cut it to two and even down to one, 58-57 at 5:30 on a 3-pointer by reserve Chibuzo Agbo.
Moody banked home a three at 5:00 for 4-point breathing room but Tech sliced it to down one again, 67-66 at 1:56.
Notae, who hit one of those from a different area code threes earlier, missed a long one but atoned rebounding Shannon’s miss of an attempted go-ahead and then getting fouled and sinking both free throws before grasping the game’s last rebound.
A celebration extending from Indianapolis to throughout Arkansas ensued including Naismith Hall of Fame Coach Nolan Richardson texting congratulations to “a super coach.”
“When I came into this Razorback family it was important to be accepted by somebody like Coach Richardson,” Musselman said. “It means a lot to me and our entire staff, the complimentary things he has said.”
And to bring Arkansas back where Nolan last took it.