Arkansas got on the plane, answered challenge from Eric Musselman
SAN FRANCISCO – Eric Musselman’s message to his team before they boarded the plane to the Bay Area left no room for misinterpretation.
“I don’t want you getting on this plane tomorrow if you don’t think in every fiber in your body that we’re going to win this game,” he said earlier this week.
Cut to the final play of Thursday night’s Sweet 16 matchup against Gonzaga, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Arkansas, despite what many experts predicted, held a 72-68 lead with only seconds remaining.
Jaylin Williams just needed to get the ball inbounds to all but guarantee a victory. Naturally, Gonzaga’s defense bit hard on movement by 3 Arkansas guards moving toward Williams.
You could almost see the surprise Williams had when Au’Diese Toney broke free, streaking down the court like Treylon Burks. Williams double-clutched, waiting for a Gonzaga defender to get out of his way. Then?
Well, then, he did his best KJ Jefferson impression, getting the ball to Toney in stride. Toney did the rest, sending the Hogs to the Elite 8 for the second year in a row with an exclamation point on a 74-68 victory:
The pass. The dunk. The celebration.
Hogs are moving on! pic.twitter.com/rePbVJ3Aie
— Adam Spencer (@AdamSpencer4) March 25, 2022
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 25, 2022
“I talked to Au’Diese when I got in the locker room,” Williams said after the game. “I saw him the whole time. I don’t think I looked at anybody else. I just waited for a guy to clear and I threw it to him and he did his thing.”
That play counted as Williams’ third assist on the night. More impressively, he finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds, becoming Arkansas’s single-season leader in rebounds.
“I’m thankful I did that, of course,” he said. “Growing up in Arkansas, just watching them my whole life, now I’m considered one of the ones people are going to look and see rebounds, that’s what I’m going to be remembered for.”
This entire Arkansas team will be remembered for a long time in Fayetteville after advancing to a second straight Elite 8.
Yeah, it’s safe to say they believed when they got on that airplane.
“This is what we dreamed about,” JD Notae said. “This is what we came here to do. Coach said before we left Fayetteville if we didn’t want to win, don’t get on the plane. We brought that the whole time we were here.”
Notae led the Hogs with 21 points and 6 assists. He also grabbed 6 rebounds, 3 steals and blocked 2 shots.
But, as has been the story in recent Arkansas games, it was the defense that ruled the day. How do you beat Gonzaga? Holding the Bulldogs to 68 points is a great way to start.
Only 2 teams have held Gonzaga to fewer points this year. Mighty Tarleton State (yes, Tarleton State) held the Bulldogs to 64 points on Nov. 29 in a 64-55 Bulldogs victory. Saint Mary’s held Gonzaga to a season-low 57 points in a 67-57 upset on Feb. 26.
Chet Holmgren, the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, scored 11 points and grabbed 14 rebounds Thursday night, but he also fouled out. He managed to stay on the court for only 23 minutes. Pinning fouls on the Gonzaga big man was a big part of the Hogs’ strategy.
“Getting Chet in foul trouble, that was one of the big things for us,” Williams said. “We wanted to keep driving at him. We wanted JD to play aggressive. We wanted our guards to keep driving at him. Getting him in foul trouble was a really big plan for us in that game and we just got it done. We stuck to the game plan.”
Musselman added that physicality down low was crucial for success.
“Inside, we wanted to be physical, plain and simple,” Musselman said. “We wanted them to feel bodies. … We weren’t going to back down inside, I can tell you that.”
No one on the roster backed down. Trey Wade had 15 points. Chris Lykes came in late and calmly nailed 2 clutch free throws. Toney had 9 points and 7 rebounds. It was a total team effort.
Now, Arkansas has its first win over a No. 1 seed, having gone 0-11 in previous tries. But, don’t think the Hogs are done dancing just yet.
“The whole time since the new guys came in, we preached to them that the bottom is us getting to the Elite 8,” Williams said. “That’s what we wanted to do the whole time. That’s what we were working toward. Of course we’re still hungry to keep achieving higher than what the expectations were. … We set the standard for ourselves to keep going up, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
Next up? Getting to the Final Four for the first time since 1995. For the strong contingent of Hogs fans that made the journey west to support their team, the prospect of a much shorter trip to New Orleans is sounding pretty good after Thursday’s convincing victory.