DES MOINES, Iowa — Arkansas survived a second-half slump to put away Illinois and advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament with a 73-63 victory on Thursday.
Ricky Council IV scored 18 points and pulled down 10 rebounds to lead the eighth-seeded Razorbacks (21-13), who trailed for only 1 minute, 20 seconds and led by as many as 17 in the second half.
Ninth-seeded Illinois committed 17 turnovers but threatened late in the second half before another Arkansas surge.
“We felt with their size, if we didn’t put pressure and big up three-quarters court, speed them up a little bit, it would be to our advantage,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said.
Illinois’ Terrence Shannon Jr. had 20 points and RJ Melendez added 10, as did Coleman Hawkins, who had a game-high six turnovers.
Arkansas advances to a second-round matchup Saturday with No. 1 seed Kansas. The Jayhawks handled Howard 96-68 in the opening game of the day.
“They were better today,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said of the Razorbacks. “They were very, very assertive early. I thought their defense early was the difference.”
The Razorbacks nearly fumbled the game away in the final minutes during a four-minute dry spell marked by repeated turnovers, before Davonte Davis ripped a pass at midcourt and found Council zipping through the lane for his only basket of the second half with 1:36 remaining. Council hit two free throws after a defensive stop to put Arkansas up 66-57.
“Our defense got it started. We held it strong and did what we needed to do at the other end,” Davis said.
Tempers flared as Illinois crawled within 62-57 on a steal and dunk by Melendez off pressure in the backcourt. Officials separated players with whistles honking at a play stoppage and Arkansas timeout at the 2:29 mark.
Shannon made one of two free throws with 4:15 to go after taking a defensive rebound end to end. With Arkansas squeezing each second from the shot clock without points on three consecutive possessions, Illinois missed three of four free throws, spoiling a chance to narrow the lead to five.
Makhi Mitchell’s spin move around Matthew Mayer for an easy lay-in stretched the Arkansas lead to 51-36 with 12:30 left in the game. Mitchell’s bucket completed a 10-0 run for the Razorbacks that spanned 3 minutes, 32 seconds and came as Illinois strained to maintain possession on offense and contain Arkansas’ downhill drives on the other end.
Melendez brought Illinois back with a personal 8-0 run capped by a 3-pointer from the left wing that hit all net with 8:05 on the clock, cutting it to 55-46.
Arkansas harassed Illinois’ perimeter-based scorers with suffocating on-ball defense and limited the Fighting Illini to single-shot possessions.
The Razorbacks led by 10 at halftime, holding Illinois to 26 points, which included seven made free throws. Illinois was 3-of-11 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes with a 23.7 turnover percentage.
–By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media