FAYETTEVILLE – Minutes Thursday night after their No. 2 seeded SEC lodge brother Kentucky fell to 15th-seeded St. Peter’s in the NCAA East Regional in Indianapolis, and right after fifth-seeded Connecticut fell to 12th-seeded New Mexico State in their West Regional in Buffalo, N.Y., the fourth-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks fought for their NCAA Tournament first-round West Regional lives against the 13th-seeded Vermont Catamounts at Buffalo’s KeyBank Center.
Unlike Kentucky and UConn, Coach Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks survived.
Sinking two free throws with nine seconds left right after an official’s review determined a Catamount had deflected the ball out of bounds after Vermont trapped him in a double-team with Arkansas, JD Notae’s final of his 17 second-half points eked Arkansas from a precarious 73-71 lead to clinch a 75-71 victory.
So with a gasp, the 26-8 Razorbacks advance to Round 2 Saturday in Buffalo against the 27-6 New Mexico State Aggies of the Western Athletic Conference.
Coach John Becker’s America East champion/America East Tournament champion Vermont Catamounts finish their season 28-6 and with even greater national respect than oddsmakers pregame listing them only 4 to 6- point underdogs against a SEC power.
“We had great respect for Vermont coming into the game,” Musselman told the TNT crew televising the games in Buffalo. “We knew it was going to come down to the last couple of minutes. I’m just happy to survive. There were upsets, but it wasn’t the Razorbacks.”
Certainly the game abounded with moments when an upset loomed.
Like senior All-American Notae first half scoreless, 0 for 4 from the field, 0 for 2 from the line and sitting the half’s last 6:20 with two fouls.
Yet thanks to sixth man guard Devo Davis taking over Notae’s point guard spot and scoring 10 first half points with three first half assists against zero turnovers, and Stanley Umude fueling one 9-0 run and Arkansas breaking a 27-27 tie with a 7-0 closing run, the Hogs somehow finished up 34-27 at intermission with their season’s leading scorer scoreless.
“Devo Davis played a phenomenal first half at the point guard position,” Musselman said. “He stepped up and saved us with his ability to score and run the offense tonight.”
By 15:56 of the second half the Catamounts reeled a 9-0 run to tie it 36-36 and wage a down to the wire never determined until officials reviewed what was initially ruled a Notae turnover before his two free throws sealed the deal.
Excelling both halves, Umude scored a game-leading 21 points, including 3 of 4 treys and 6 of 6 free throws, and nearly double-doubled with nine rebounds.
Notae scored his 17 second-half point with seven boards while Davis finished with 14 points. Arkansas center Jaylin Williams double-doubled with 13 points and 10 rebounds while known for his defense guard Au’Diese Toney joined Umude playing all 40 minutes scoring six points with five boards.
That eventual game-winning five shared living on the edge. All accumulated four fouls but never fouled out. All shoot free throws well, a game-winning 20 of 25 as a team vs. Vermont’s 10 of 17.
Superb Vermont scoring threat center Ryan Davis scored 20 points, including 4 of 5 treys but was neutralized the game’s final 13 minutes. Also Jaylin Williams outrebounded Davis,10-3 as the Hogs hogged the boards, 39-32.
Vermont guard Ben Shungu also scored 20 points and with a team-leading nine rebounds while Vermont guard Justin Mazzula scored 13.
“Just a ton of credit to Vermont,” Musselman said. “They’re so well coached.”
Postgame Umude, Notae and Davis assured they came into the game fully respecting the Catamounts.
“You know coming in that every possession we are going to have to fight,” Umude, the graduate transfer forward via the University of South Dakota, said. “I don’t think we came in relaxed or anything.”
Notae, like Davis and Williams returnees from last year’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight Razorbacks who had to rally from down 10 to beat first round underdog Colgate, said, “This tournament nothing is guaranteed.”
Well there was one guarantee.
At half Musselman told Notae he wouldn’t abandon his scoreless, foul-troubled star.
“I whispered to him, ‘I’m still going to run plays for you,” Musselman said. “You can’t hide, man. I’m going to you. We’re going to sink and swim with your performance in the last 20 minutes.’ I thought he started attacking the rim a lot more.”
Notae admitted to “settling too much” on jumpers the first half and went into driving attack mode.
Notae admitted initially fearing he had put Vermont back in the game until that review with nine seconds left showed he had not last touched the ball before the Vermont trap caused it to deflect out of bounds.
“I thought it was out on me, honestly,” Notae said. “I’m not going to cap you.”
His teammates would not have blamed him.
“JD had a huge second half,” Umude said. “I don’t think we win that game without him stepping up.”
They don’t win without Umude both halves, Notae and Davis said.
“He is huge,”Notae said. “I would just tell him when it gets to crunch time, we’re going to go to him.”
Devo Davis added, “Stan can score on all three levels so, I think we used that to his advantage in our offense, and I think as we continue to run plays for him, he continues to make plays for us and himself. I think if we continue to do that down the stretch like we did tonight, then the sky is the limit for Stan.”
The Hogs certainly put a second-half limit on Ryan Davis. Vermont’s star didn’t launch a shot the final 13 minutes.
“ We changed our pick and roll coverage,” Musselman said. “I thought they were picking us apart.”
And came close to picking them off.
“Arkansas is really good, and we knew we would have to play near perfect basketball,” Vermont Coach Becker said. “And, unfortunately, we didn’t do that. But really I’m just so proud of these kids and this team.”