INDIANAPOLIS — They came in droves, the Arkansas fans, a sea of red making the trip to Bankers Life Fieldhouse, all 585 or so miles, a trip that takes about nine hours of drive time, plus any stops along the way.
A drive that couldn’t have felt all that long, honestly, compared to how long they’ve been waiting for this weekend. Once a national powerhouse, Arkansas hadn’t been to the Sweet 16 in 25 years, not since the days of Nolan Richardson.
The Razorbacks fans bought up the suites, gobbled up tickets to three quarters of the available Bankers Life seats and overwhelmed the small but vocal contingent of Oral Roberts fans that made the trip from Tulsa.
And when it was all over, after a mad dash and a great look by Oral Roberts star Max Abmas bounced off the rim, sending Arkansas into the Elite Eight for the first time since 1995 with a 72-70 win, the Razorbacks faithful didn’t react with a gasp of relief even though they’d come within a single shot of being upset by a No. 15 seed.
Loud and long, roaring first as Arkansas coach Eric Musselman raised both hands to the crowd and tapped his right ear to ask for more. They rolled into their distinctive war chant, “Woo Pig Sooie,” then showered praise down on the hero of the moment, chanting “DEVO” over and over again at full throat as freshman Davonte Davis waited just off the court for his interview with CBS.
From couches around the country, it must have looked like all the Razorbacks had done is survive Cinderella, avoided the ignominy of being the only team in history to let a 15 seed into the Elite Eight.
From inside the building, it looked and sounded like elation.
Arkansas had plenty of reason.
After making that drive, eager to celebrate the Sweet 16 run, the Razorbacks faithful spent most of the game in agonizing anxiety, trying to keep their blood pressure under control as Oral Roberts knocked their team on its heels.
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Arkansas keeps putting them in that position. The third-seeded Razorbacks have now trailed by double digits in all three NCAA tournament games despite being the favorite, and the pressure to avoid the upset only keeps mounting.
Fifteen seed or not, Oral Roberts kept the pressure on Arkansas all night. First it was a 15-7 lead at the start, then the Golden Eagles answered a Razorback run to take a 35-28 halftime lead, then they pushed it out to 46-34 four minutes into the second half, then spent the next 13 or 14 minutes dancing back out in front of Arkansas every time Musselman’s team tried to make a run.
Battling back into this one took guts, guts exemplified by a pair of transfers, former Northern Kentucky guard Jalen Tate and former Indiana forward Justin Smith.
Smith had been the star of the tournament’s opening weekend, but this time he had to do the dirty work. He scored 12 points and grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds, but did his best work on Saturday on the defensive end, holding Oral Roberts standout Kevin Obanor to just seven shot attempts and 12 points — Obanor averaged more than 19 points per game this season.
This time, it was Tate who shouldered the offensive load.
Tate’s father, Jermaine, missed out on a Sweet 16 trip at Cincinnati when Kenyon Martin broke his leg, and his brother, Jae’Sean, got knocked out in the second round with Ohio State in 2018. Tate himself lost out on his only NCAA tournament trip at Northern Kentucky when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the tournament last season, and the graduate transfer played on Saturday night like a man who wasn’t ready to give up his only shot at the dance.
Tate led the Razorbacks with 22 points, added four rebounds and six assists, but it’s the way he did it, slicing into the paint repeatedly to get the offense going, battling for boards, finding the open man and finishing, that set the tone for the Arkansas comeback.
When they got down by 12 points, Musselman called timeout, and Tate came out of it with a tough basket in the lane and then a drive-and-dish to Moses Moody that got the Razorbacks back to their identity.
“We needed paint points,” Davis said. “As you saw, we got to the rim in the second half, and we out-toughed them.”
Davis made the final shot, a difficult play in the lane, but it was Tate who found him, dribbling out nearly the entire shot clock before penetrating it and pitching it to Davis to get things started. When Davis hit the shot, an Arkansas crowd that had gotten stronger and stronger as its team came back let loose, making Bankers Life sound like Bud Walton Arena.
They erupted even louder when Abmas’ shot missed a few minutes later.
Musselman, better than just about anybody, understands the elation. A few years ago, he was in a similar Sweet 16 game, his Nevada team clawing back from a 12-point deficit against another Cinderella, Loyola Chicago, only to see Marques Townes hit a Sister Jean Hail Mary at the buzzer to send him home.
“Against Loyola, it was a side-step three, almost in the exact same spot on the floor,” Musselman said. “We had defended it perfectly, and they made the shot. We were probably one shot away from beating Loyola and being in the Elite Eight that year. I still think about that shot over and over. I guess tonight the basketball gods were looking over us.”
That’s why Musselman wasn’t mad about the near-miss, and why he kept egging on his roaring crowd.
Fighting back against the magic of March is no easy task. An Arkansas fan base that has waited a quarter of a century to get back to this point gets it better than most.
“I can’t explain this, it’s wild,” Davis said after he’d finally had a chance to calm down. “I know the fans are feeling good, and I know everyone else out there in Fayetteville, they’re representing.”
Long after Davis and Musselman had headed into the locker room and started their post-game interviews, some of the Razorback faithful were still in the fieldhouse, staring at the court, basking in the moment, chanting and yelling and cheering.
There were more out in the foyer, where a lot of Razorback fans weren’t on their way out the door.
They were holding a pep rally, chanting “Woo Pig Sooie” over and over, celebrating the win.
The Razorbacks traveled a long way to get here.
And they don’t have to go back home yet.