Arkansas coach rips his shirt off in celebration of victory over defending champion Kansas
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Eric Musselman and his players rushed to the floor at the last buzzer to celebrate with their cheerfully delirious friends from Arkansas.
The 58-year-old coach jumped onto the press table, ripped off his red polo shirt and waved it above his head, shouting the whole time to the delight of the fans, as has become his tradition after the greatest of his victories.
And this one was really important.
Kansas’ national title defense ended Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament when Arkansas’ Ricky Council IV made five free throws in the final seconds and the eighth-seeded Razorbacks beat the lead seeded No. 1 Jayhawks 72-71.
“I would love to lie and say I felt calm, but we only led for 1:43,” he said. “It has been as difficult and eventful a season as any I have ever been in.
“For these guys to be rewarded for their perseverance and to be able to go to Las Vegas and compete with only 16 teams left standing. … It’s really hard to make this tournament. It’s really hard to win a game in this tournament. It’s really tough to beat the reigning champions, seeded No. 1. We did it.”
Arkansas was playing a No. 1 seed for the third straight year. Last year, the Razorbacks knocked out Gonzaga on the way to their second consecutive Elite Eight. This time, the Razorbacks survived shaky early attacking play and late fouls. They became the first team to beat a No. 1 seed with three players committing a foul, according to OptaSTATS.
“This is an incredible win for our program,” Musselman said. “I keep telling people we’re getting better. Few teams can improve at this time of year. I have never been so proud of a team like tonight.
Davonte Davis scored 25 points and the Board added 21 as Arkansas recovered from a 12-point second-half deficit. Kansas, playing without ailing coach Bill Self, became the second seed not to escape the tournament’s first weekend after Purdue lost Friday night to No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson.
Arkansas (22-13) is in the Sweet 16 for the third straight year and will face either Saint Mary’s or UConn in the West Region semifinals in Las Vegas on Thursday.
Self has been with the Jayhawks (28-8) since arriving in Des Moines and has attended practices and meetings, but he still did not feel well enough to coach a game after undergoing heart surgery on March 8 for clear clogged arteries.
Longtime assistant Norm Roberts served as interim coach for a fifth straight game in Self’s absence.
Kansas, a candidate to become the first repeat national champion since Florida in 2006-07, led 35-27 at halftime and lost for the first time in 27 games entering the second half with a lead. Kansas was 47-0 in the NCAA Tournament as it led by eight or more points at halftime.
“Our guys have been great all year,” Roberts said. “They fought until the end, made huge plays. It was hard not having Coach here, but we’re not making excuses. We have to line up and do it, and we missed a bit today.
Davis scored 21 of his points in the second half. He fouled with 1:56 remaining, giving way to veteran Council, a transfer from Wichita State that has scored nine of the Razorbacks’ last 11 points.
“This team was struggling and we understood that,” Davis said. “I’m glad we did it at the right time. Hopefully we continue to do so.
Outside the locker room, a sobbing Musselman hugged Davis and shouted, “I (expletive) love you, man!”
The Council’s free throw gave Arkansas the lead to stay, 68-67, with 24 seconds left. He then rebounded his own miss from the second free throw and made two more to give the Razorbacks a three-point lead.
The teams traded free throws and Arkansas sent Kansas’ Jalen Wilson to the line with 3 seconds left to prevent a potential 3-point tie. Wilson made the first free throw and appeared to be trying to miss the second intentionally, but he veered hard off the glass and inside, and Kansas never regained possession.
Wilson led the Jayhawks with 20 points but lamented grabbing only four rebounds, which he said was a factor in Arkansas holding a 15-2 advantage in second-chance points. No missed rebound hurt more, he said, than when Kansas failed to grab the ball on the Council’s missed free throw in the final seconds.
“It always comes down to a game, especially hustle games like that,” Wilson said. “It’s just disappointing to end like this, especially with the quality of our year. Thanks to them for the way they played.
Arkansas, which beat Illinois in the first round, was considered a scary game for the Jayhawks with their explosive transition play and ability to play lockout defense.
But the circumstances weren’t ideal for the Razorbacks. Guard Anthony Black honed a nagging ankle injury early and went to the bench to get patched up and change shoes, and fellow guard and projected NBA first-round pick Nick Smith Jr. committed two quick fouls and was limited to 10 minutes. and no points in the first half. Also, big man Kamani Johnson was sick and playing with a sore toe.
The Razorbacks were too eager to shoot 3-pointers early. They missed 8 of 9 in the first half and couldn’t start their running game.
Kansas controlled the stretches but could never put the Razorbacks away.
Davis started a decisive 11-0 run at Arkansas midway through the second half and Jordan Walsh’s 3-pointer eight minutes from time gave the Razorbacks their first lead since their first field goal of the game.
Arkansas neutralized Wilson at the most important moment, allowing the All-American just two shots in 15 minutes of the second half.
Arkansas is in the Sweet 16 for the 14th time. The only lowest-ranked Razorbacks team to reach a regional semifinal was the 1996 team, which was No. 12 under Nolan Richardson, who led the school to its only national title two years earlier.
If Musselman reaches his first Final Four, he will conjure up more memories of those glory years.
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