Arkansas holds off Illinois 73-63 with big defensive effort

DES MOINES, IOWA - MARCH 16: Dain Dainja #42 of the Illinois Fighting Illini contends for the aerial ball with Anthony Black #0 of the Arkansas Razorbacks during the second half in the first round of the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo

Ricky Council IV scored 18 points and Arkansas survived some anxious moments in the second half against an Illinois team that wouldn't go away, holding on to beat the Illini 73-63 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.

Devo Davis had 16 points for the eighth-seeded Razorbacks, who used relentless defense and rebounding to build big leads but couldn't get comfortable until the final minute. Arkansas (21-13) faces  top-seeded Kansas on Saturday in the second round of the West Region. 

Terrence Shannon Jr., held scoreless the first 16 minutes, finished with 20 points to lead the Illini (20-13). It was the first time in five tournament appearances since 2011 that Illinois didn't make it out of the first round.

The Razorbacks were up by double digits in the middle of the first half, but no lead has been safe this season. In seven games they blew leads with scoring droughts of five minutes or longer.

That didn't happen this time, though it looked like it could when Arkansas failed to land what could have been the knockout punch with 2 1/2 minutes to play. Anthony Black intercepted Coleman Hawkins' cross-court pass and Council missed the fast-break dunk when he would have been better served to lay it in. The blown play left Arkansas coach Eric Musselman flailing his arms and screaming.

"We were in this position many times before," Council said. "We would be up 10, up 12 at halftime, and it starts dwindling down and the other team takes the lead. So just keep that mindset we got to win the game. We all wanted to win, and just keeping our foot on the gas and not giving up. Coach gave us positive energy and we gave positive energy to each other, so we just didn't let up. We ended up extending the lead."

Council atoned for his missed dunk with a layup to end a 4-minute, 13-second scoring drought, and his two free throws with 1:18 left put the Razorbacks up 68-57.  

"We were able to survive their run in the second half, and obviously 22 for 29 from the foul line, shooting 76% in a win-or-go-home game. John Daly will be happy," Musselman said, referring to the pro golfer and big Razorback fan. "He gives me texts after every game about our free-throw shooting. So I'm sure he will give me a positive text tonight."

Arkansas, which has reached the Elite Eight the past two years, led by as many as 14 points in the first half and went to the locker room ahead 36-26 following a scrambling play under the basket where Kamani Johnson battled three Illinois players for a loose ball.

The play defined the hardscrabble contest. Jackson got the ball and muscled it into the basket. Nick Smith Jr. was there to celebrate as Johnson turned to go upcourt,  playfully pushing his teammate in the chest. Johnson slipped and fell and exchanged smiles with Smith when he got up. 

A timeout followed, and the Arkansas faithful began a raucous "calling of the hogs," putting some extra oomph into their "Wooooo. Pig. Souie!" 

Arkansas' defense was on point from the outset, holding the Illini to 28% shooting in the first half and 38.5% for the game. The Hogs scored 19 points off Illinois' 17 turnovers.

"I thought their defense early was the difference," Illini coach Brad Underwood said. "We had a hard time getting into offense, and then every time we made a run we missed a layup, we turned it over, or missed free throws."

Illinois: The Illini dropped to 1-8 all-time against Southeastern Conference teams in the NCAA Tournament. Matthew Mayer, who won a national championship with Baylor in 2021 and was the Illini's second-leading scorer this season, missed all six of his shots and was held to two points.

Arkansas: The Razorbacks are now 6-1 against the Big Ten in the tournament since 1983 and set up for another deep run if they can knock off the Jayhawks.

Arkansas' last meeting with Kansas in the NCAA Tournament was in the 1991 Elite Eight, a 93-81 Jayhawks win.