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Statewide Sports 0

Elite Eight: Hogs send Gonzaga to the showers, seek to do the same to Duke

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After knocking off the top seed of the NCAA Tournament Gonzaga, 74-69, Thursday night in the NCAA Tournament West Regional at San Francisco, the Arkansas Razorbacks face the dubious task of sending legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to the showers for good in the Elite Eight.

Coach Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks (28-8) will meet the No. 2-seeded Duke Blue Devils (31-6) in the Elite Eight at approximately 7:49 p.m. Saturday on TBS. Both Arkansas and Duke earned victories Thursday in two thrilling matchups.

After going with an uncharacteristic zone defense much of the night, Krzyzewski listened to his players and switched back to man-to-man defense to upend third-seeded Texas Tech, 78-73, in the second semifinal of the West Regional. Duke made three defensive stops in man-to-man that pushed the Blue Devils over the top.

Krzyzewski, 75, announced earlier in the year that he would retire after 42 years as the head coach of the Blue Devils when this season concludes. Against the Hogs Saturday, Coach K will be seeking his 13th trip to the Final Four, where his squads have won five national titles.

With all due respect to one of the greatest college basketball coaches ever, the Razorbacks and their fans would like nothing better than to end his historic run in the City by the Bay to advance themselves to New Orleans and the Final Four. It would be the first time since back-to-back trips to the Final Four in 1994 at Charlotte, N.C. and 1995 at Seattle during the height of the Nolan Richardson era of Razorback basketball.

Arkansas Razorbacks beat Gonzaga to advance to the Elite Eight

Photo: Courtesy, ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Led by Corliss “Big Nasty” Williamson, the Hogs won their lone basketball national title and capped a “dream season” against Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils thanks to the high-arcing trey by Scotty Thurman. Dwight “Big Dog” Stewart set up the shot with his assist, and the Razorbacks went on to a 76-72 victory in the 1994 championship game.

However, it was Coach K’s Blue Devils who stopped the Hogs in their 1990 surprise run to the Final Four at Denver when Todd Day, Lee Mayberry, and Oliver Miller were sophomores. Duke gassed the running Razorbacks in the high altitude of the national semifinal game, 97-83.

But that’s enough reminiscing. THE story is about the Razorbacks of the here and now.

Musselman has done a masterful job of guiding his Hogs to the Elite Eight for the second season in a row in just his third season as the Razorbacks’ head basketball coach.

In late December and early January, this Razorback squad looked like it was going anywhere but to the Elite Eight after losing five of six games from Dec. 11 through Jan. 8. But Musselman and his staff got this team — composed primarily of a few key returning players from 2021 and four graduate transfers — to work their way to the cusp of the Final Four with a tenacious brand of basketball that leaves teams scratching their heads.

Since turning that corner, the Razorbacks have gone 18-3 against one of the toughest schedules in the college game.

With the victory over Gonzaga, the Razorbacks became the first team to beat an AP No. 1 squad (Auburn 80-76 in overtime) on Feb. 8 and the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament during the same season, according to an ESPN Stats & Info Twitter post.

Thursday night’s victory over Gonzaga cannot be minimized.

It’s simply one of the biggest victories in Razorback basketball history. It’s up there with the 1978 squad’s victory over UCLA — just off its decade-long dominance of the game under John Wooden — that sent Eddie Sutton and the Hogs to their first Final Four since the 1940s, and the 1984 Hogs’ regular-season upset of No. 1 North Carolina and Michel Jordan in Pine Bluff.

Richardson had so many dominating victories over so many prominent teams, but other than the aforementioned national title win over Duke, it’s hard to point to a bigger single game victory than the one Musselman and his Hogs pulled off Thursday night.

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Terry Wood is a writer with 25 years experience covering sports and entertainment. He lives in Springdale and is a lifelong sports fan, movie buff and comic-book reader.

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