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 had 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 second round of the West Region.
Terrence Shannon Jr., held scoreless 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 didn’t make it out of the first round.
On paper, this matchup was one of the most even of the first round. The teams’ season stat sheets were nearly identical, and they were trending similarly with Arkansas having lost six of its last nine coming in and Illinois six of its last 10.
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The Razorbacks were up double digits in the middle of the first half, but no lead has been safe this season. In seven games they blew leads with scoring droughts of five minutes or longer.
That didn’t happen this time, though it looked like it could when Arkansas failed to land what could have been the knockout punch with 2 1/2 minutes to play. Anthony Black intercepted Coleman Hawkins’ cross-court pass and Council missed the fast-break dunk when he would have been better served to lay it in. The blown play left Arkansas coach Eric Musselman flailing his arms and screaming.
Council atoned with a layup to end a 4-minute, 13-second scoring drought, and his two free throws with 1:18 left put the Razorbacks up 68-57.
Arkansas, which has reached the Elite Eight the past two years, led by as many as 14 points in the first half and went to the locker room ahead 36-26 following a scrambling play under the basket where Kamani Johnson battled three Illinois players for a loose ball.
The play defined the hardscrabble contest. Jackson got the ball and muscled it into the basket. Nick Smith Jr. was there to celebrate as Johnson turned to go upcourt, playfully pushing his teammate in the chest. Johnson slipped and fell and exchanged smiles with Smith when he got up. A timeout followed, and the Arkansas faithful began a raucous “calling of the hogs,” putting some extra oomph into their “Wooooo. Pig. Souie!”
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Arkansas’ defense was on point from the outset, holding the Illini to 28% shooting in the first half and 38.5% for the game. The Hogs scored 19 points off Illinois’ 17 turnovers.
On one of Illinois’ many empty possessions, Hawkins had the shot clock run out on him before he could get the ball to the rim. He turned to an official and tried to show him claw marks on the inside of his left arm, presumably put there by Jordan Walsh. The ref wasn’t interested.
Illinois: The Illini dropped to 1-8 all-time against Southeastern Conference teams 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 held 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 knock off the Jayhawks.
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Each team had a shot get lodged between the rim and backboard in the first five minutes.
Kamani Johnson’s layup try for Arkansas went up but didn’t come down, and a couple minutes later, Terrence Shannon’s 3-point attempt from the corner for Illinois got stuck as well.
Arkansas’ last meeting with Kansas in the NCAA Tournament was in the 1991 Elite Eight, a 93-81 Jayhawks win.