DES MOINES, Iowa — Eric Musselman and his players rushed across the floor at the final buzzer to celebrate with their joyfully delirious friends from Arkansas.
The 58-year-old coach jumped onto the press table, ripped off his red polo shirt and waved it over his head, shouting all the while to the fans’ delight, as has become his tradition after the biggest of his wins.
And this was a really big one.
Kansas’ national title defense ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday when Arkansas’ Ricky Council IV made five free throws in the closing seconds and the eighth-seeded Razorbacks beat the No. 1 seed Jayhawks 72-71.
“I would love to lie and say that I felt composed, but we only led for 1:43,” he said. “This has been as challenging and as up-and-down a season as I’ve ever been a part of.
“For these guys to be rewarded for sticking with it and being able to go to Las Vegas and participate with only 16 teams still standing. … It’s really hard to make this tournament. It’s really hard to win a game in this tournament. It’s really hard to beat defending champions, No. 1 seed. We did it.”
Arkansas was playing a No. 1 seed for the third straight year. Last year, the Razorbacks knocked out Gonzaga on the way to their second straight Elite Eight. This time, the Razorbacks survived shaky offensive play early and foul trouble late. They became the first team to beat a No. 1 seed with three players fouling out, according to OptaSTATS.
“That’s such an unbelievable win for our program,” Musselman said. “I keep telling people that we’re getting better. Not many teams can get better this time of year. I’ve never been prouder of a team like tonight.”
Davonte Davis scored 25 points and Council added 21 as Arkansas rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit. Kansas, playing without ailing coach Bill Self, became the second top seed not to escape the tournament’s first weekend after Purdue lost on Friday night to No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson.
Arkansas (22-13) is in the Sweet 16 for the third straight year and will play either Saint Mary’s or UConn in the West Region semifinals in Las Vegas on Thursday.
Self has been with the Jayhawks (28-8) since they arrived in Des Moines and has attended practices and meetings, but he still didn’t feel well enough to coach a game after having a heart procedure March 8 to clear clogged arteries.
Longtime assistant Norm Roberts was acting coach for a fifth straight game in Self’s absence.
Kansas, bidding to become the first repeat national champion since Florida in 2006-07, was ahead 35-27 at halftime and lost for the first time in 27 games when entering the second half with a lead. Kansas had been 47-0 in the NCAA Tournament when leading by eight points or more at the half.
“Our guys have been terrific all year,” Roberts said. “They fought to the very end, made huge plays. It was tough not having Coach here, but we don’t make any excuses. We have to line up and get it done, and we came up a little bit short today.”
Davis scored 21 of his points in the second half. He fouled out with 1:56 left, turning things over to the veteran Council, a transfer from Wichita State who scored nine of the Razorbacks’ final 11 points.
“This team was struggling and we figured it out,” Davis said. “I’m glad we did at the right time. Hopefully we continue to do it.”
Outside the locker room, a sobbing Musselman hugged Davis and shouted, “I (expletive) love you, man!”
Council’s free throw put Arkansas ahead to stay, 68-67, with 24 seconds left. He then rebounded his own miss of the second free throw and made two more to give the Razorbacks a three-point lead.
The teams traded free throws, and Arkansas sent Kansas’ Jalen Wilson to the line with 3 seconds left to prevent a potential tying 3-pointer. Wilson made the first free throw and appeared to try to miss the second intentionally, but it banked hard off the glass and in, and Kansas never regained possession.
Wilson led the Jayhawks with 20 points but lamented grabbing only four rebounds, which he said was a factor in Arkansas holding a 15-2 advantage in second-chance points. No missed rebound hurt more, he said, than when Kansas failed to grab the ball off Council’s missed free throw in the waning seconds.
“It always comes down to one play, especially hustle plays like that,” Wilson said. “It’s just disappointing to end like that, especially with how great our year was. Credit to them for how they played.”
Arkansas, which beat Illinois in the first round, was considered a scary matchup for the Jayhawks with its explosive transition game and ability to play lockdown defense.
But circumstances were less than ideal for the Razorbacks. Guard Anthony Black tweaked a nagging ankle injury early and went to the bench to get re-taped and change shoes, and fellow guard and projected high NBA first-round draft pick Nick Smith Jr. picked up two quick fouls and was limited to 10 minutes and no points in the first half. Also, big man Kamani Johnson was ill and played with a sore toe.
The Razorbacks were too eager to shoot 3-pointers early. They missed 8 of 9 in the first half and couldn’t get their running game going.
Kansas was in control for stretches but never could put away the Razorbacks.
Davis started a game-turning 11-0 Arkansas run in the middle of the second half and Jordan Walsh’s 3-pointer with eight minutes left gave the Razorbacks their first lead since their first basket of the game.
Arkansas neutralized Wilson when it mattered most, allowing the All-American only two shots over a 15-minute stretch of the second half.
Arkansas is in the Sweet 16 for the 14th time. The only lower-seeded Razorbacks team to reach a regional semifinal was the 1996 squad, which was a No. 12 under Nolan Richardson, who led the school to its only national title two years earlier.
If Musselman reaches his first Final Four, he will evoke more memories of those glory years.