by Nate Allen
FAYETTEVILLE – Playing David vs. national No. 1 Gonzaga’s Goliath, the 9.5 point underdog Arkansas Razorbacks zigged the Zags, 74-68 in a NCAA West Regional Sweet Sixteen stunner Thursday night at the Chase Center in San Francisco.
So for the second consecutive year Coach Eric Musselman’s now 28-8 Razorbacks advance to the Big Dance’s Elite Eight.
Saturday in San Francisco they will play Duke, a 78-73 West semifinal winner at the Chase Center over Texas Tech Thursday night. Saturday’s winner advances to the Final Four in New Orleans.
Barely surpassing 13th seeded Vermont, 75-71 and 12th-seeded New Mexico State, 53-48 in their first round games last week in Buffalo, N.Y. nationally cast the fourth-seeded Razorbacks as the team with no chance vs. now 28-4 Gonzaga and 7-foot and 6-10 All-American Zags Chet Holmgren and Drew Timme, Musselman said.
“We believed!” Musselman shouted postgame to Tracy Wolfson of the CBS crew televising the game. “Nobody else did!”
To his team Musselman had conveyed clips from every national naysayer.
“We looked at everything!” Musselman said. “I’m telling you we put it up on our screen! Every single deal! Thank you to everybody who said we have no chance!”
Obviously Musselman’s method worked.
“We take a look at ourselves, and we saw what everybody else said,” sophomore center Jaylin Williams told CBS after advancing to a second Elite Eight while double-doubling 15 points and 12 rebounds vs. Gonzaga. “And we believed in ourselves from the jump. We just kept fighting and kept fighting and we did our thing tonight.”
Though with a far from stellar field goal percentage, JD Notae’s 9 for 29, just 2 of 12 3-point shooting night brought home a team-leading 21 points along with six assists, six rebounds and three steals.
“He could have missed ten more shots, and I probably would have still called his number because I had the belief the next one is going in,” Musselman said in the postgame press conference. “So do his teammates.”
Notae was supported by Williams’ 15 and 12 double-double, plus Trey Wade’s big 15 points, including 3 of 4 treys and seven rebounds.
Also pivotal, a second consecutive defensive gem by via University of Pittsburgh grad transfer Au’Diese Toney against a nationally renowned guard, plus Toney’s nine points and seven rebounds.
And finally two game-clinching free throws by reserve guard Chris Lykes.
It all sufficed to overcome another big night from big man Timme’s game-leading 25 points and Holmgren’s condensed 11 points/14 rebounds double and two shot blocks.
Foul trouble limited Holmgren to 23 minutes.
Up 22-17 when Holmgren exited the remainder of the first half with two fouls, Gonzaga trailed 32-29 at intermission. Williams dunked at 1:38 and Notae drove coast to coast at the buzzer with the Zags minus their renowned shot-blocker.
Williams and Toney drew Holmgren’s third and fourth fouls before Notae’s drive inside fouled out the freshman superstar at 3:29. Notae hit one of two free throws for a 63-56 Arkansas lead.
But Coach Mark Few’s Zags did not succumb without a fight.
Toney, in his previous game holding New Mexico State guard Teddy Allen to 12 points after Allen had scored 37 on defensively strong UConn, frustrated Gonzaga point guard Andrew Nembhard, holding him to 2 for 11 with just seven points and three assists vs. five turnovers.
But, with 15 seconds left, Nembhard shook loose for a three, creating a one possession game with Gonzaga down 68-65.
With Arkansas only 5 for 10 from the line at that point and the Zags bent to foul, Musselman inserted Lykes and ordered the ball into University of Miami grad transfer’s hands.
At 5-7, the shortest player in the tournament but season-long big on the line, Lykes sank both, sending the game out of Gonzaga’s long reach.
“When he steps in at the end of the game, we’re all confident of him hitting free throws” Williams said at the postgame press conference.
Arkansas’ defense allowed Lykes’ free throws to be the capper.
The Zags’ 68 points sagged 19 under their average. Their nine assists vs. 15 turnovers belied their 18.1 assists vs. 11.8 turnovers per game average.
“To hold them to 68, incredible defense!” Musselman told CBS.
“All the credit goes to Arkansas,” Few said. “Their defense was pretty tough to get any rhythm against. To me that was the difference in the game.”
It started with Toney on Nembhard helping Musselman have the third time be the charm against the former Florida point guard.
As a Gator, Nembhard was instrumental, knocking Musselman’s Nevada team out of the 2019 NCAA Tournament and helping the Gators beat Musselman’s 2020 Razorbacks in Gainesville, Fla.
Musselman said he repeatedly reviewed every clip of Nembhard, then turned it over to Toney.
“We didn’t do a good enough job pressuring him when he was at Florida,” Musselman said. “Nembhard would get a head of steam. Au’Diese met him really early in the backcourt. Au’Diese’s defense was incredible the entire game.”
Wade, the grad transfer forward via Wichita State used only six minutes against New Mexico, excelled on both ends for his 33:51 against Gonzaga.
“I thought Trey Wade did a great job of denying and pressuring their trail man,” Musselman said. “Then Trey Wade’s points when we desperately needed them were huge for us as well.”
Arkansas-Duke tips off at approximately 7:49 CDT and will be televised by TBS.