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RECAP: Great First-Half Defense Propels the Hogs past Illinois

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Illinois vs Arkansas Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Des Moines, (IA.) — Arkansas kicks the NCAA Tournament off with an interesting match-up with the University of Illinois. The fighting Illini and the Hogs have had an eerily similar season with lots of preseason hype and relatively disappointing outcomes. Both teams even had much of the same struggles, including free throws and 3-point shooting.

Will all the similarities, one thing stuck out during the game, mainly on defense: Arkansas’s athleticism. The Hogs missed their first 6 shots in just over 2 minutes of play. However, their defense held Illinois to just 2 points in the same amount of time. Arkansas then scored 8 unanswered points.

The Illini offense looked like it was going to wake up with a 3-point basket by Luke Goode but quickly died down. Illinois took another 7 minutes to come up with any type of competent offense to answer the Razorback. By that time, Arkansas had grown the lead to 23-10.

The point deferential fluctuated around 10 points through the closing minutes of the half, but the energy level for the Hogs continued to grow. At its peak, the energy and excitement caused a little friendly fire. After doing what Kamani Johnson does best—fight and scrap under the basket for offensive rebounds—he scored a layup with 44 seconds to go. Excited by Johnson’s effort, Nick Smith Jr pushed Kamani to the floor trying to celebrate the bucket.

The two hugged it out in the timeout huddle, making it one of the funniest and wholesome moments of the tournament so far. Arkansas led going into halftime 36-26.

Another difference between the two teams was how they played each half. Arkansas consistently rushed out to a double-digit lead to then squander it in the second half. Illinois, on the other hand, were poor starters but turned on the heat in the second half. Which trend would continue?

Illinois began the second half with some life cutting the deficit to 5, but Arkansas then went on a 17-5 run to push the score to 55-38. Slowly, but surely, The Illini chipped away the lead to within 5, again with 2:30 left in the game. It looked like it was just another Arkansas game that we’ve seen all season.

But Arkansas had other plans. Defense and—surprise—free throw shooting led the team to another 10-point advantage to finish the game. Arkansas knocked down 9 of 10 free throws (mostly by Ricky Council IV) and held Illinois to just 6 points.

Hogs win 73-63.

The Stats

With all the similarities, it’s no surprise that Arkansas and Illinois’ stats were nearly identical. The key differences, however, were Arkansas’s 8 more offensive boards, 10 more percentage points better FT percentage, and 6 fewer assists.

The Hogs finished shooting 38% (24-63) and 27.3% (3-11) from 3-point range. In the most refreshing stat, Arkansas knocked down 22/29 free throws. Arkansas was in its element with 32 points in the paint and 13 off of fast breaks. The Hogs didn’t share the ball well, only recording 4 assists, and turned the ball over 11 times.

Defensively, the Hogs held Illinois to 38% (20-52) and the exact same 3-point percentage at 27.3% (6-22). Arkansas won the rebound battle 43-34, but the difference was offensive rebounding, 11-3. Arkansas forced 17 turnovers and stole it 12 times. Both teams came into the game as top 15 in blocks, so it is not surprising that they had a lot of blocks, 5 for Illinois and 4 for Arkansas.

Ricky Council IV had a team-high 18 points. Two more players scored double-digits; Devo Davis had 16 and Anthony Black had 12. Council quietly had a double-double with 10 rebounds. Makhi Mitchell had 7 boards with Black and Davis each grabbing six. Devo was in prime March Madness form, recording 4 steals in addition to everything else. Black and Jordan Walsh recorded 3 steals a piece, as well.

Arkansas will face the No. 1 seed in the West Region, Kansas,in the round of 32. Kansas has the most Q1 wins with a whopping 17, but the head Jayhawk, Bill Self, will miss the game due to a health issue that happened before the start of the tournament. The Hogs will play on March, 18th with the time of the game to be determined.