SAN FRANCISCO – In typical March Madness fashion, an unexpected hero emerged for an under-the-radar challenger in a Sweet 16 upset.
“Just being the underdog, man – use it to your advantage,” Arkansas forward Trey Wade said. “They never see you coming. We just came out and played balls to the wall, and got it done.”
Wade, a grad transfer out of Wichita State, hadn’t factored in at all throughout the Razorbacks’ first two NCAA Tournament games, but he came up clutch in crunch time Thursday for fourth-seeded Arkansas, which knocked off top overall seed Gonzaga 74-68 at Chase Center.
The 6-foot-6 Wade totaled two points on 1-of-3 shooting in Arkansas’ past two games combined and entered this one averaging 3.2 points and 2.5 rebounds per contest on the year. But he rang up 15 – 10 after halftime – and scrapped underneath for seven rebounds as the Razorbacks (28-8) outhustled the Zags (28-4) and created separation in the second half.
He hit the dagger with about 2 minutes remaining, burying a 3-pointer from the corner to put Arkansas up by eight. It took much of the life out of the GU faithful in attendance and gave the Hogs the cushion necessary to survive a Bulldog rally and deny the Zags a third consecutive Elite Eight appearance.
Third-year Hogs coach Eric Musselman also commended Wade’s defensive efforts.
“Trey Wade did a great job of denying and pressuring their trail man (in transition),” he said.
Arkansas has won 18 of its past 21 games after a deflating stretch in December. Even so, the Razorbacks came into the NCAA Tourney with an edge – they felt as though they deserved more credit than what the college hoops pundits were giving them. Before tipoff Thursday, ESPN predicted the Zags to win handily.
“I think we’ve been disrespected the whole year,” standout post Jaylin Williams said. “It’s just another thing for us. They gave them an 86% chance to win. We saw that and everything they were saying. They (the Bulldogs) were dancing before the game. That was disrespect to us. We came into the game playing hard and had a chip on our shoulder.”
The victory marked the Razorback program’s first against a No. 1 overall seed at the Big Dance.
“This is what we dreamed about,” said Arkansas point guard JD Notae, who pestered GU’s defenders throughout the day and came up with 21 points, six assists and six rebounds. “This is what we came here to do. Coach said before we left Fayetteville that if we didn’t want to win, then don’t get on the plane. I feel like we brought that the whole time.”
Arkansas’ season ended last year in the Elite Eight with a loss to eventual champion Baylor. Just three key contributors returned from that group as the Razorbacks loaded up on transfer talent, settled in and hit their stride in February, when they logged wins over top-ranked Auburn, No. 13 Tennessee and No. 6 Kentucky.
“When the new guys came in, we preached to them, like, ‘The bottom is us getting to the Elite Eight,’ ” said Williams, who pulled down 12 boards and set the program’s single-season record for rebounds. “That’s what we wanted to do the whole time. That’s what we were working towards. Of course, we’re still hungry to keep achieving higher than what the expectations were.”
Meanwhile, the Zags’ national title expectations were dashed again.
Many Hog fans in the packed house at Chase Center had surprised delight painted on their faces as their team’s advantage became apparent in the second half.
“It’s a big stage,” Wade said. “It’s what you dream of.”
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