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Connecticut routs Arkansas, reaches first Elite Eight since 2014

No. 4 seed Huskies 88, No. 8 seed Razorbacks 65

Jordan Hawkins (second from left) scored a game-high 24 points to lead Connecticut to a rout of Arkansas, securing the Big East power's first trip to the Elite Eight since 2014. (John Locher/AP)
4 min

LAS VEGAS — Eric Musselman slumped off the court, his season over and his deep red polo still tucked into his dark pants.

Thousands of Arkansas Razorbacks fans descended upon Sin City this week, itching to celebrate another March Madness upset with their expressive coach, who went shirtless to lead the cheers following last weekend’s upset of top-seeded Kansas, the defending national champions.

But Connecticut quickly nixed any chance for a bare-chested encore, overwhelming the Razorbacks with a physical, precise offensive attack and leading wire-to-wire in an 88-65 victory in the West Region semifinal at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday. The fourth-seeded Huskies advanced to an Elite Eight showdown with Gonzaga or UCLA on Saturday, seeking their first Final Four appearance since winning the 2014 title.

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The Razorbacks didn’t need long to know they were in trouble; guard Davonte Davis was forced to the bench after committing two fouls in the game’s first two minutes. With wings a step quicker and big men a head taller than their counterparts, Connecticut ripped off a 14-0 run midway through the first half, shooting a blistering 61 percent over the first 20 minutes to take a commanding 46-29 lead into the break.

“We knew we had to come out fast on them,” Huskies guard Jordan Hawkins said. “They’re a physical team, and we knew we had to come out with the first punch.”

There was no turn of momentum or twist of fate after intermission. Adama Sanogo immediately keyed a 7-2 push to start the second half for the Huskies (28-8). The junior forward, who was born and raised in Mali before coming to the United States for high school, made two quick baskets and blocked a shot to launch a fast-break runout, helping build a lead that eventually reached 29 points.

Hawkins, a sophomore from Gaithersburg, Md., who starred at DeMatha, finished with a game-high 24 points, shooting 6 for 13 from the field and 9 for 9 from the free throw line. Sanogo, who controlled the paint on both ends throughout, added 18 points, eight rebounds and two blocks.

“Hawkins is as good of a shooter as we’ve played all year,” Musselman said. “He rises up over people and moves without the ball really well. … Uncharacteristically, we did not defend at the level we have for most of the year. We ran into a team that passed the ball really well and shares it.”

Meanwhile, Arkansas’s offense struggled to get on track against the Huskies’ long front line, shooting a season-low 31.7 percent from the field. The 6-foot-9 Sanogo and 7-2 backup center Donovan Clingan dissuaded forays to the hoop, and Connecticut outrebounded Arkansas 43-31.

Nick Smith Jr., a freshman guard who was the nation’s top-ranked high school prospect last year, hit a three-pointer and converted an and-one runner in an early flourish. Too often, though, the eighth-seeded Razorbacks (22-14) came up empty on contested jumpers or wild drives.

Freshman guard Anthony Black, a potential 2023 NBA draft pick like Smith, led the Razorbacks with 20 points. Junior guard Ricky Council IV added 17 points, while Smith finished with 11 points after a quiet second half.

“This was right there [with our best defensive game of the season],” Huskies Coach Dan Hurley said. “Our plan was to try to take away paint points and make them shoot perimeter shots and tough twos. We made them kind of one-dimensional.”

With their season slipping away, the Razorbacks turned to a frantic full-court press midway through the second half in hopes of mounting a comeback. The Huskies coolly handled the pressure, getting three-pointers from Hawkins, Nahiem Alleyne and Hawkins again in quick succession to end the suspense for good.

This time, it was Hurley’s turn to lead the cheers. As Alleyne’s three-pointer dropped through, the intense Huskies coach raised a fist to egg on Connecticut’s small but vocal fan section. Hurley’s glasses remained on his face, and his navy suit jacket barely budged.