Sports

Arkansas tops Gonzaga to reach Elite Eight

SAN FRANCISCO — Pressure. 

You either embrace it in the big moment or it’ll slowly suffocate you. 

There are many ways to alleviate pressure in sports. In the case of Thursday night’s Sweet 16 West Regional, Arkansas coach Eric Musselman had the magic elixir: Mix business with pleasure. 

The result was a gritty 74-68 Arkansas upset of Gonzaga, the No. 1 overall seed, at the Chase Center to earn a berth into the Elite Eight for the third consecutive year. Arkansas will play the winner of Thursday’s late game between Duke and Texas Tech on Saturday for a berth into the Final Four. 

The West Regional in San Francisco was not a home game for Arkansas, but the Razorbacks sure have been making themselves at home. 

Particularly Musselman, the 57-year-old who coached the Golden State Warriors from 2002-04 and the Sacramento Kings from 2006-07 and has strong ties to the Bay Area. He’s embraced this Sweet 16 trip like few coaches have in this high-pressure tournament. 

On the team flight to San Francisco, he handed out ball caps of all the area pro teams — the Giants, Athletics, 49ers and Warriors — to his players. On Wednesday, in between practice and media obligations, he took the players on a tour of the city on one of the famous cable cars. 

When the Razorbacks were in Buffalo last week for the first two rounds, Musselman gave his players a taste of Buffalo, taking them to Niagara Falls and the Bills facility. 

“I think it’s healthy for us to be able to do stuff like that,’’ he said. 

Eric Musselman celebrates with Jaylin Williams after Arkansas advanced to the Elite Eight.
Eric Musselman celebrates with Jaylin Williams after Arkansas advanced to the Elite Eight.
Getty Images

It appeared to make a healthy difference in the game for Arkansas. The Razorbacks (28-8) were the looser team while Gonzaga looked like a team that knew it was supposed to win (the Zags were 9 ¹/₂ -point betting favorites) and got tighter as shots failed to fall. 

Gonzaga (28-4) entered the game leading the nation in both scoring (87.8 points per game) and field-goal percentage (52.6 percent) this season. It scored 19 fewer points than its average Thursday and shot 37.5 percent. 

Arkansas muddied up the game beautifully, never letting the Zags find a rhythm. 

“We felt like they were dancing before the game,’’ said Arkansas forward Jaylin Williams, who scored 15 points and had 12 rebounds. “That was disrespect to us.’’ 

Guard JD Notae led Arkansas with 21 points on 9 of 29 shooting, including 2 of 12 from 3-point range. 

“He only took 29 shots?’’ Musselman said with a smile. “He could have missed 10 more shots, and I probably would have still called his number because I had that belief that the next one is going in. So do his teammates.’’ 

JD Notae finished with a team-high 21 points.
JD Notae finished with a team-high 21 points.
AP

Musselman, the son of former NBA and CBA (Albany Patroons) coach Bill Musselman, sounds like a hell of a fun coach to play for. 

He said his approach to these games this March — the fun distraction of these culture trips — was born from a learning experience he had in 2019 when he coached Nevada into the Sweet 16 and felt he put too much pressure on his players. 

“I regret it,’’ he said. “We didn’t celebrate wins. I wish we would have had more fun. I wish we would have embraced being in the [NCAA] Tournament. One of the most regrettable years I’ve ever had.’’ 

There were going to be no regrets on the part of Musselman or his players on this night or this week. 

“This is what we came here to do,’’ Notae said. “Coach said before we left Fayetteville, ‘If we didn’t want to win, then don’t get on the plane.’ I feel like we brought that the whole time we’re here.’’ 

Trey Wade, who scored 15 points, embraced being the underdog. 

“Use it to your advantage,’’ he said. “They never see you coming. We just came out and played balls to the wall, and we got it done.’’ 

Gonzaga felt it. 

Chet Holmgren walks to the bench after fouling out.
Chet Holmgren walks to the bench after fouling out.
AP

One of the key moments in the game came with 3:29 remaining, when Gonzaga big man Chet Holmgren fouled out after scoring 11 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. 

“It’s one of the fastest-paced teams that I’ve ever seen with the push of the ball,’’ Musselman said. “Even this morning we were still working on our transition defense. We wanted to take away their long outlet passes.’’ 

Done and done. 

When the game was over, Musselman made a beeline into the stands to hug his mother, Kris, who was watching her son coach the Razorbacks in person for the first time. She’d flown up from her home in San Diego on Wednesday. 

“I went and gave her a hug,’’ Musselman said. “She gave me a buckeye from Ohio that my dad used to hold. She gave it to me pregame, so I’m sure she’s going to give the credit to herself for that lucky buckeye she’s held for 60 years or whatever.’’ 

A fun week for Arkansas continues. No pressure.

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