DES MOINES, Iowa — There was no second-half letdown for the Arkansas basketball team Thursday.
The eighth-seeded Razorbacks led by as many as 17 points after halftime and held off multiple runs to defeat ninth-seeded Illinois 73-63 in a first-round NCAA Tournament game at Wells Fargo Arena.
Arkansas (21-13) advanced to play top-seeded Kansas on Saturday in the second round. The game is scheduled to begin at 4:15 p.m. and will be televised by CBS.
The Jayhawks (28-7) defeated 16th-seeded Howard 96-68 in the first game at Wells Fargo Arena on Thursday. Arkansas and Kansas will play at the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the Elite Eight in 1991.
Illinois (20-13) cut its deficit to five points on multiple occasions in the second half, but the Razorbacks always had an answer. Arkansas finished the game on an 11-6 run in the final 1:36, which included 8 points from guard Ricky Council.
“We were in this position many times before,” Council said. “We would be up 10, up 12 at halftime, and it starts dwindling down and the other team takes the lead.
"We all wanted to win, and just [kept] our foot on the gas and not giving up. Coach gave us positive energy and we gave positive energy to each other, so we just didn’t let up. We ended up extending the lead.”
Council, who scored a team-high 18 points, went 6 for 6 at the free-throw line in the final 1:18. Jordan Walsh also added two free throws during that stretch to help the Razorbacks pull away.
“We were able to survive their run in the second half, and obviously 22 for 29 from the foul line, shooting 76% in a win-or-go-home game. John Daly will be happy,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said, referring to the pro golfer who played college golf for the Razorbacks. “He gives me texts after every game about our free-throw shooting. So I’m sure he will give me a positive text tonight.”
Arkansas trailed 2-0, but never trailed again after taking the lead with an 8-0 run. Shortly after guard Davonte Davis went to the bench with his second foul, the Razorbacks used a 10-0 run to grab a 23-10 lead with 6:55 left in the first half.
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Walsh kicked off the spurt with a jumper, then freshman guard Nick Smith added two scores, including a transition layup.
Council and freshman Anthony Black accounted for the next nine points and the lead ballooned to 32-18 with 4:06 remaining. Council’s second bucket in that span was his first three-pointer since the team’s Feb. 28 loss at Tennessee.
The Razorbacks led 36-26 at halftime.
A 7-0 run by Illinois cut the lead to 38-33 early in the second half. Arkansas responded with a 13-3 run that included a three-pointer and second-chance tip in from Davis during a 34-second span, then back-to-back layups by Makhi Mitchell put Arkansas ahead 55-38 with 10:46 to play.
Held scoreless until midway through the second half, Illinois guard RJ Melendez scored eight consecutive points to start the Illini's final push.
After Davis nailed a left-wing three as the shot clock wound down with 5:49 to play, Illinois pulled within 62-57 on a Melendez dunk following an Arkansas turnover in the backcourt. Melendez finished with 10 points.
Council scored his first points of the second half on a layup with 1:36 remaining, then added a pair of free throws 18 seconds later.
With 1:23 left, Black blocked an Illini three-point attempt. Davis also had a crucial steal in the game's final minutes.
Davis scored 16 points and Black scored 12, and both players had 6 rebounds. Mitchell was efficient with 9 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks in 23 minutes off the bench.
After a slow start, Terrence Shannon scored a game-high 20 points to lead Illinois.
Both teams shot 38%, but Arkansas outscored the Illini in points off turnovers (19-11), second-chance points (6-5) and at the free-throw line (22-17).
The Razorbacks out-rebounded Illinois 43-34 and were plus-6 in turnover differential.
“I thought their defense early was the difference,” Illini coach Brad Underwood said. “We had a hard time getting into offense, and then every time we made a run we missed a layup, we turned it over, or missed free throws.”
Arkansas won its first-round game for the third consecutive season. That is tied for the Razorbacks' longest stretch of first-round wins since the program won 10 straight from 1989-99.
Matt Jones contributed