FAYETTEVILLE – Spotting double-digit leads to 14th-seeded Colgate, sixth-seeded Texas Tech and 15th-seeded Oral Roberts the third-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks could overcome winning their first three rounds at the NCAA Tournament South Regional in Indianapolis.
Spotting an 18-point lead Monday night to the top-seeded Baylor Bears the Razorbacks could not prevail.
They sure tried, though. Coach Eric Musselman’s resilient Razorbacks, despite a down 13-2 start that widened to down 29-11 at 11:01 of the first half, cut Baylor’s lead to 46-38 at half and eventually to down four before falling, 81-72 Monday night in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight South Regional final at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
“Just want to give Baylor a ton of credit,” Musselman said. “I thought they played phenomenal tonight, especially offensively. I mean, our locker room gave us all they could, came up empty. We’ve had a great two months. Played at a very, very high level. But, again just have to give Baylor credit.”
Both Musselman and graduate transfer point guard Jalen Tate called Baylor the “best team” these Hogs faced this season.
Preseason picked sixth in the SEC, the Razorbacks starting three freshmen and two graduate transfers, finish a storybook season 25-7 as the SEC runner-up to SEC champion Alabama and becoming Arkansas’ first team advancing to the Elite Eight since Nolan Richardson’s 1994-95 Razorbacks finished as the national runner-up following winning the 1993-94 national championship. They already were Arkansas’ first Sweet Sixteen team since Richardson’s 1995-96 Razorbacks.
While Arkansas’ 2020-2021 books close, Coach Scott Drew’s Big 12 champion Bears continue, 26-2 into Saturday’s Final Four semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium against the Houston Cougars, 67-61 Midwest Regional championship game winners Monday night over Oregon State.
“That’s a really good team across the way, man,” Tate said of Baylor. “But it (Arkansas’ comeback) just shows the resiliency of this group. We almost did it. We weren’t able to tonight. We did a lot on our 12-game win streak, and especially these three past games in the tournament. We just had great fight and we were able to dig in and get back.”
Musselman mused on Arkansas’ fight.
“I mean, the effort when we got down we could have hung our heads,” Musselman said. “But I mean we played extremely hard, but lacked some scoring at times.”
Arkansas closed to down 64-60 with 7:34 left but was outscored 17-12 the remainder.
The Razorbacks were doubly offensively handicapped.
Moses Moody, their freshman All-American guard and SEC All-First teamer and SEC Newcomer, suffered his second consecutive offensive struggle. Last Saturday shooting just 4 of 20 from the field though the did score 14 points during that 72-70 Sweet Sixteen victory over Oral Roberts University, Moody scored just one first-half point Monday and took just one first-half shot from the field. Moody finished with 11 points, mainly thanks to 7 of 8 free throws as he hit but 2 of 10 from the field including 0 for 4 on threes.
What happened these last two games?
“Probably just the defense just really keying in on him,” Musselman said. “A major part of opponents’ scouting reports. That probably would be what I would contribute it to.”
Off the bench, junior guard JD Notae lived up to his SEC All-Sixth Man honors. Notae ignited Monday’s comeback scoring 14 points in just 14:47. He would have played far longer but for foul trouble. Notae got called for his fourth foul at 13:58 of the second half. He fouled out 20 seconds later on a charging call.
“JD offensively was phenomenal,” Musselman said. “But the foul trouble … He picked up a fifth way too early. We needed him to play as many minutes as he could when he’s playing like he was tonight. Unfortunately he just picked up way too many cheap fouls.”
Foul trouble limited Davion Mitchell, one of three outstanding Baylor starting guards, in Monday’s first half.
But Mitchell impacted the second half finishing with 12 points and six assists against one turnover.
“That, Davion Mitchell is one of the fastest guys I’ve ever guarded,” Tate said. “He’s a tough cover. You could tell they’re a completely different team on both sides of the ball. He’s a facilitator for them as well as just their anchor defensively.”
Mitchell would be a load starring by himself. But then complement him with guards MaCio Teague, a game-leading 22 points, and Jared Butler, 14 points and five assists. Plusthe combined 25 bench points from guards Adam Flagler, 10 points, including 2 of 2 treys with three assists and four steals, and Matthew Mayer, seven points and three steals, and forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, eight points and six rebounds.
Arkansas outrebounded the Bears, 34-29 and outscored them in the paint, 40-36.
However Baylor made its South Regional living in points off turnovers beating Hartford, Wisconsin and Villanova and did so against Arkansas, 21-6. Arkansas netted just nine Baylor turnovers while committing 15.
“Our 15 turnovers, not astronomical, but 21 points off of them, just too much to overcome,” Musselman said.
Arkansas freshman guard Davonte “Devo” Davis of Jacksonville, his place etched in Arkansas history with the contested shot with 3.1 seconds left that beat Oral Roberts, 72-70 in Saturday’s Sweet Sixteen semifinal, matched Notae’s team high 14 points Monday, and tied for a game-high six rebounds with teammates ’Smith, 10 points, and Desi Sills, also providing a team high four assists off the bench and Baylor’s Tchamwa Tchatchoua.
Tate, huge against ORU with a team high 22 points, six rebounds and four assists including on Davis’ game-winner, scored 13 Monday in his final Razorbacks game.
Always taking defeat hard, Musselman said he knows he’ll reflect fondly eventually.
“I’m sure we’ll have time to reflect once we get back to Northwest Arkansas,” second-year Arkansas Coach Musselman said. “But the locker room’s disappointed. We came into this game to try to win the game. But a phenomenal season and certainly a season in Year Two that we can all build upon.”