By Caleb Lynn | @CalebLynn1
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — For the No. 3-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks, the sounds in Bankers Life Fieldhouse began to suggest that the game could be slipping away. A pro-Arkansas crowd had temporarily become very quiet. The Raiders of Colgate, Patriot League champions, had taken a 14-point lead in the first half of the South Region game.
That all changed when Arkansas put together a 17-0 run to close the half in a 3:44 span to turn up the pro-Razorback noise. From there, Arkansas found its flow and defeated Colgate 85-68. The Razorbacks are now 13-2 in their last 15 games, and their overwhelming defense – a link to the signature of the 1994 national championship team — led to their offense performing at a higher level.
The Razorbacks (23-6) will meet No. 6 seed Texas Tech on Sunday. The Razorbacks were led by Justin Smith, the graduate transfer from Indiana, who scored 29 points on 9-of-17 shooting, with 13 rebounds, two blocked shots and five steals.
For Smith, it was first NCAA tournament game, an outcome he envisioned when coming to Arkansas. Smith said his goal was to play his game and dominate inside.
“For me, I really go into every game where I can make an impact,” Smith said. “It Is a rhythm game, you have to find a way to get a flow.”
Smith said that Arkansas wanted to play inside out. From there, the Arkansas coaching staff believed that he could exploit Colgate and take advantage of different matchups.
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman spoke to the importance of having his team trust the game plan. Colgate (14-2) came into this game with the second-best scoring average of 86.3 points per game. In order for Arkansas to win, Musselman needed his team to fight through the jitters, and he thought slowly but surely his players figured it out.
“I thought our inexperience showed in the first ten minutes of the game,” Musselman said. “…I thought we got settled in after those ten minutes.”
The Razorbacks forced 22 turnovers and put in 34 points off those turnovers. Arkansas had 21 points in transition. Musselman decided to try out the “55” defense which features full-court pressure. Their “55” defense held Patriot League Player of the Year Jordan Burns scoreless in the first half.
Burns, who averaged 17 points this season, missed the seven shots he took in the first half. He finished with 13 points, but was limited to 4-of-13 shooting and committed six turnovers.
Arkansas also got a big game from the Southeastern Conference Sixth Man of the Year, J.D. Notae, in the second half. Notae scored 14 points in the second half, including 3-of-8 shooting from 3-point range to give the team an energy boost.
“I don’t know how many baseball fans we have here,” Musselman said. “…. But he is either going to hit a home run or strike out,” Musselman said. “…Shirts and skins, he just goes out there and plays.”
Colgate navigated through a memorable season to reach a second consecutive NCAA tournament for the second time in school history. “Super proud of this group, of this team,” said Colgate coach Matt Langel. “But ultimately, we did not take good enough care of the ball.”