It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t easy, but the Arkansas Razorbacks advanced past the gritty Vermont Catamounts on a day when several higher seeds took it on the chin in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Gone are squads like No. 2 seed Kentucky and No. 5 seeds UConn and Iowa, but coach Eric Musselman and his Hogs are still dancing in the West Regional at Buffalo, N.Y. where Arkansas posted a 75-71 victory over upset-minded Vermont at the KeyBank Center.
National pundits had the Hogs on upset alert all week, but the Razorbacks survived much to the glee of Musselman.
Razorbacks at March Madness
Opponent: New Mexico State
When: 7:40 p.m. Saturday, March 19
Where: Keyback Center at Buffalo, N.Y.
Tournament Bracket: NCAA.com
“Vermont is so well coached,” Musselman said of Catamounts coach Scott Becker on a TNT postgame interview. “They know their roles so well. I can’t give their coaching staff enough credit, and their players execute so well. The object is to survive and advance… People were picking us to be upset. There were upsets here in Buffalo, but it wasn’t the Razorbacks!”
The No. 17 Hogs (26-8) will face 12th-seeded New Mexico State at 7:40 p.m. Saturday on TNT. The Aggies (27-6) upset No. 4 Seed UConn, 70-63, earlier Thursday.
In a nip-and-tuck game in which Vermont held Arkansas leading scorer JD Notae scoreless in the first half, the Hogs gutted out a victory against the well-coached and disciplined Catamounts, who were unintimidated by the Razorbacks’ SEC reputation.
Notae bounced back in the second half to score 17 crucial points to go along with his 4 assists and 7 rebounds while Stanley Umude led the Razorbacks in scoring with 21 points in addition to his 9 rebounds and 3 assists. Umude became the first Hog to ever to play a full 40 minutes in an NCAA Tournament game without a turnover.
Umude, a graduate transfer playing in his first NCAA Tournament game, drew big-time praise from Becker following the slugfest.
“I was really impressed with him,” Becker said. “Gosh darn, he is huge. Like, on tape, he didn’t look that big. Then he could really shoot it and really provide spacing for them. I thought he was really, really good and impressive…He looked like a pro. He is a good player, for sure.”
Umude, who also went for 20 against Texas A&M in the Hogs’ exit from the SEC Tournament, reaped praise from teammate Devo Davis.
“Stan can score on all three levels, so I think we used that to his advantage in our offense, and I think as we continue to run plays for him, he continues to make plays for us and himself,” Davis said. “I think if we continue to do that down the stretch like we did tonight then the sky is the limit for Stan.”
Umude transferred to Arkansas for the express purpose of gaining the NCAA Tournament experience, and he is making the most of it.
“I feel good shooting the ball,” Umude said. “(I’ve got) a lot of confidence in my teammates, and coaches do a good job of finding me. I think I just have been getting a lot of reps in and just picking my spots.”
Umude said the Hogs were ready to dig down deep to advance in the tournament.
Knew it was gonna be a battle. Didn’t back down. pic.twitter.com/qyPnAsfdzN
— 4 Seed Hogs ? (@RazorbackMBB) March 18, 2022
“You know coming in that every possession, we’re going to have to fight,” Umude said. “I don’t think we came in relaxed or anything. We came in ready to go, and I think the upsets going around, it’s March, so we just have to be ready.”
Davis came off the bench to help the Hogs remain competitive early when Notae was struggling with fouls, scoring 10 of his 14 points and making 2 steals in the first half.
Jaylin Williams scored 13 and collected 10 rebounds for his 13th double-double of the season while handling defensive chores on Vermont’s Ryan Davis. Williams also took a key charge in the game, his nation-leading 50th of the season.
Davis did score 20 as did Ben Shungu for the Catamounts, but Williams and the Hogs shut off his water late in the game, which might have been the difference on a night where the Razorbacks could not pull away from Vermont in the incredibly clean-played game in which Arkansas had just 5 turnovers and Vermont 6.
The Hogs’ 5 turnovers is the lowest ever recorded by an Arkansas squad in its 79 NCAA Tournament games.
The Razorbacks looked like they might be ready to put Vermont away early in the second half, but the Catamounts went on a 12-0 run to take a lead 39-36 with 15:33 to play. The game would be back and forth from that point on.
“This tournament there is nothing guaranteed,” Notae said. “Everybody is trying to win. So with that, we just have to come out there and play from the jump to the finish.”
Musselman’s mind is now on New Mexico State. He scouted the Aggies’ game from the stands prior to the Razorbacks’ victory.
“They compete,” Musselman said of Aggies coach Chris Jans’ squad. “They are tough guys. They got a star player (Teddy Allen), who can create his own shot. A very, very tough matchup. It’s a very, very tough matchup with Allen, and they are very well coached. He does a great job. They are tough; they scrap.”
Allen averages 19.8 points per game for New Mexico State with Sir’Jabari Rice contributing 12.1 ppg.
The Razorbacks continue to strive and thrive off their defense. As long as the Razorbacks’ maintain the intensity they have brought to the arena on most nights since mid-January, the Hogs will have a chance to compete against the best in the tournament. But as the Catamounts showed the Razorbacks Thursday, every game is a challenge and nothing can be taken for granted.