Basketball

Hogs Hang On: Razorbacks Beat Top-Ranked Auburn

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On what was likely a regular Tuesday night for most of the world, the Razorback faithful took in an experience they won’t soon forget as the No. 1 ranked Auburn Tigers traveled to Fayetteville, AR. An 80-76 led to the rushing of Nolan Richardson court by a record-breaking 20,327 fans in Bud Walton Arena.

Setting the Stage

The Razorbacks were riding an eight-game win streak, including a seven-game SEC win streak, against teams with an average NET Ranking of 94th at the time. They were holding opponents to a combined 37% shooting from the field, including 28% from distance, and forcing nearly 16 turnovers per game. Only the Georgia Bulldogs shot better than 38% FG and 31% 3P shooting during this eight-game stretch. The supersized Razorback lineup of JD Notae, Au’Diese Toney, Stanley Umude, Trey Wade, and Jaylin Williams turned the Razorbacks’ season around with a newly-found defensive mindset to go along with improved rebounding and efficiency starting in the 46-point victory over the Missouri Tigers on January 12th.

Auburn, however, ranked 7th in the NET Rankings coming into the game and had won 19 consecutive games. In fact, they had only lost one game on the entire season before their appointment in Bud Walton Arena – a double-overtime thriller against UCONN back in November.

Led by freshman phenom and potential No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Jabari Smith, the Tigers were beating opponents by an average of 14 points per game while shooting 45% from the field and nearly 33% from long range. They held their opponents to an absurdly low 39% shooting from the field across 23 games this season. For reference, before Arkansas’s impressive win streak, they were only holding opponents to 44% FG shooting.

Looking past the name on their opponents’ chest, Arkansas had never faced a No. 1 ranked team at home in the history of Bud Walton Arena. In fact, the only time they had ever beaten a No. 1 ranked team was a 1984 matchup against the North Carolina Tarheels led by some 6-6 guard named Mike Jordan.

With a whiteout declared by the fans, the top-ranked team in the nation on their way to challenge the unranked Hogs, and students lining up over 12 hours prior to tipoff, the stage couldn’t have gotten much bigger.

Regulation Recap

Auburn jumped out to an early 5-0 lead but was quickly rattled by the ravenous Razorback defense and the deafening roar inside Bud Walton Arena. The Hogs answered with a 27-10 run to take a 12-point lead late in the first half. With two early fouls, Jaylin Williams saw much of the first half from head coach Eric Musselman’s point of view on the bench. His absence aided in Auburn’s response as they rallied to take a three-point deficit into the halftime break.

The Tigers picked up right where they left off, quickly tying the game less than a minute into the second half. From there, the race was on. Neither team built more than a five-point lead at any point during the entire second half – both teams momentarily led by five points on separate occasions. The Hogs and Tigers traded punches like a pair of heavyweights in a championship fight down the wire, with the Hogs landing the final punch, tying the score at 66-66 with 0:21 to play in the game. One more stop from Musselman’s squad forced overtime in what had already shaped up to be an all-time classic.

Overtime Heroics

Jaylin Williams and JD Notae showed up for their team when it mattered most. The two combined to score all 14 of the Razorbacks’ points in overtime. Notae’s ability to react to his defenders and draw fouls on the drive forced Auburn’s big man, 7-1 sophomore Walker Kessler, into fouling out late in the overtime period – not before he could tally 16 points, 19 rebounds, and 7 blocks, however. His absence might have been exactly the spark the Hogs needed to finish the game, despite Jabari Smith’s late-game Stephen Curry-impersonation as he hit back-to-back triples to keep the Tigers alive.

A JD Notae free-throw ultimately gave the Hogs a four-point lead with under 20 seconds to play. Auburn’s final 3-point attempt was no good, and Devo Davis took Jaylin Williams’ outlet pass all the way to the hoop to provide Hog fans with an after-the-buzzer exclamation point on what is arguably the biggest regular-season win of the century for Arkansas basketball.

Key Performers

JD Notae was huge for the Hogs once again. For the 23rd time this season and 24th game in a row, he finished in double-digit scoring as he poured in 28 points to go along with five rebounds, three assists, three steals, and four blocked shots. He shot 33% from the 3-point line and nearly 79% from the charity stripe. The number of points he scored was just as important as the timely nature in which his points came. Time after time Notae worked his way to an open jumper, a makeable layup, or a pair of free throws – never allowing the game to be out of reach for the Razorbacks.

Jaylin Williams is the heart and soul of this Razorback basketball team. The winning plays he makes are absent from the stat sheet just as often as they are present. In this game, he finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two steals, and two charges drawn, giving him his sixth double-double of the season. He also shot 33% from long range and 86% from the free-throw line to help the Hogs secure the victory.

Au’Diese Toney got in on the fun with a double-double of his own – 14 points and 10 rebounds – his second of the season. He shot better than 45% from the field for the 16th time this season and went 4-5 from the free-throw line, including a pair of clutch makes near the end of regulation. Devo Davis also contributed 10 points, four rebounds, and a season-high five steals in the upset victory.

Razorbacks Road Ahead

Though their path to the NCAA tournament may have just taken a huge step in the right direction, Arkansas’s remaining schedule doesn’t get any easier. Up next they hit the road to take on Alabama in Tuscaloosa, AL. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index currently gives the Crimson Tide – currently 23rd in the NET Rankings – a 68.5% chance to defeat the Hogs on their home court.

After that, the Razorbacks get a “break” by traveling to take on a scrappy Missouri squad on the road, a game the Hogs can’t afford to overlook. Finally, Eric Musselman and company end their season on a hellacious five-game stretch that includes Tennessee twice, a weekend game against Kentucky, a rematch with LSU, and a road matchup against Florida. These four teams average out with a 19th NET Ranking.

This series of seven games provides the Hogs with opportunities to finish anywhere from 19-12 (8-10) to 26-5 (15-3). A more likely scenario would be for the Hogs to end at roughly 23-15 (12-6).

The Razorbacks will look to ride their current momentum into what projects to be a final home stretch lurking with hard-fought tests against talented teams.

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