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Long time coming: Arkansas finally back in national picture after surviving Oral Roberts

Pete Thamel
·4-min read

INDIANAPOLIS — The long, tortured revival of Arkansas to the forefront of college basketball took more than a quarter century. The Razorbacks parted ways with a Hall of Fame coach, churned through three forgettable tenures and wandered through long stretches of irrelevancy.

Arkansas hasn’t played in the Final Four since reaching back-to-back national title games in 1994 and 1995, a time when the school’s famous "Calling the Hogs" provided a soundtrack for the sport. Well, that nostalgic serenade bounced through the upper decks of Bankers Life FieldHouse on Thursday.

There’s a unique yearning that comes with the revival of an old power, a clash of fresh desires and old entitlement that only spikes the stakes. And on Saturday afternoon in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, No. 3 Arkansas outlasted No. 15 Oral Roberts in a game that rekindled the gamut of emotions.

The Razorbacks needed an eight-foot jump shot by freshman guard Davonte Davis with 2.9 seconds left to secure a 72-70 victory. It’s the first Elite Eight for Arkansas, and their generational moment prevented a historic one. Oral Roberts appeared on the cusp of becoming the first No. 15 seed in NCAA history to reach the Elite Eight. The Golden Eagles led by 12 points nearly five minutes into the second half and continued to the final buzzer playing the role of unflinching March buzzsaw.

Oral Roberts had a clean look at the buzzer to win. Max Abmas took an inbounds pass at the opposing 3-point line and caught it in a full sprint. He dribbled three times to cover the length of the court, pulled up with a clean look from 3-point range between Arkansas defenders Davonte Davis and Jalen Tate. The shot just missed off the front rim.

Arkansas guard Desi Sills attempts to shoot over Kevin Obanor of Oral Roberts during the first half on March 27. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Arkansas guard Desi Sills attempts to shoot over Kevin Obanor of Oral Roberts during the first half on March 27. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Abmas played as dynamic as anyone in the entire NCAA tournament, as he finished with 25 points and looked the part of the best player on the floor Saturday night. Tate led Arkansas with 22 points as freshman star Moses Moody shot just 4-for-20 and finished with 14 points.

Oral Roberts played well enough to win. It shot just 8-of-31 from 3-point range and its two best players missed clean 3-point shots in the final minute. Prior to Abmas’ mad dash, co-star Kevin Obanor missed a wide open look from 3-point range.

Arkansas didn’t as much win as it brass-knuckled its way to survival. The Razorbacks scored 42 points in the paint, 18 second-chance points and basically willed their way back after trailing by seven points with less than nine minutes remaining. Eleven of Arkansas forward Justin Smith’s 14 rebounds were offensive, a statistic that summed up the tenor of the team’s win.

It marked the second straight game that Arkansas needed to grind out until the final possession, as it also had to sweat out a 68-66 victory over Texas Tech in the second round. In the first round, Arkansas trailed Colgate by double digits before pulling away for a comfortable victory.

The new face of Arkansas basketball is Eric Musselman, a relentless pinball of a human who stalks the sideline as if he’s auditioning to become the third Hurley brother. He bounded about on Saturday with an energy that appeared contagious, as the entire Arkansas bench acted as if they were mimicking Cameron Crazies with their energy and enthusiasm.

The victory for the Hogs ended the historic run for Oral Roberts, which became just the second No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16, joining Florida Gulf Coast. The Golden Eagles dispatched Ohio State in the first round, outlasted Florida in the second and gave their private Christian school in Tulsa a week of unprecedented publicity.

That type of attention could well swing toward Arkansas this week.

Arkansas will play top-seeded Baylor for a spot in the Final Four on Monday, which will require a more thorough and focused effort if the Razorbacks want to continue reviving the past and keep the Hog Calls echoing through Indianapolis.

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