Baylor and Arkansas were once quite familiar with each other during their days as Southwest Conference rivals.
But the stakes were never as high as they will be on Monday night in Indianapolis when the Bears and Razorbacks square off for a spot in the Final Four.
When top-seeded Baylor (25-2) faces third-seeded Arkansas (25-6) in the South Region final, it will be only the third time they’ve played in the past 30 seasons, with the Bears winning the most recent encounter on Dec. 30, 2009, according to College Sports Reference. Before that, the teams played regularly as part of the defunct SWC.
Baylor is seeking its first trip to the Final Four since 1950, when it was just an eight-team tournament, and third all-time.
The Bears secured a spot in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2012 and the third time in the past 11 NCAA Tournaments.
“You’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity, and obviously we have an opportunity to go to the Final Four,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Hopefully, we’ll put our best foot forward.”
Arkansas is aiming to reach the Final Four for the first time since back-to-back trips in 1994 and 1995 under the late Nolan Richardson during their “40 Minutes of Hell” days when it won the school’s lone national title and finished runner-up the following season.
The Razorbacks are making their 11th appearance in the Elite Eight all-time.
“It’s an incredible feeling to be in an Elite Eight in our second year,” said Arkansas coach Eric Musselman, who is in his second year as head coach. “I really can’t describe it.”
Baylor and Arkansas each needed second-half comebacks on Saturday to keep their respective national title hopes alive.
The Razorbacks held off the most unlikely of Cinderella’s in this year’s Tournament when they rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit to beat No. 15 seed Oral Roberts, 72-70.
The Bears trailed by seven at the half before coming back to beat fifth-seeded Villanova, 62-51.
Davonte Davis, who finished with 16 points, knocked down a short-range jumper from just outside the paint with 2.9 seconds left and Arkansas secured victory when Oral Roberts guard Max Abmas’ 3-pointer at the buzzer bounced off the rim.
“It’s amazing just being able to be in this position right now as an individual and as an Arkansas player,” Davis said.
The Razorbacks needed to go a bit old school defensively to slow down sharp-shooting Oral Roberts, which buried five three-pointers early to jump out to a 15-7 lead. But after making 6 of 17 in the first half, Arkansas held the Golden Eagles to only 2-for-14 shooting from beyond the arc in the second half.
“We weren’t playing hard,” Davis said. “We were playing slow. We were letting them slow us down and that’s not what we needed. We’re a fast team.”
The Razorbacks also forced four costly turnovers down the stretch and used their size to again control the boards. Arkansas outrebounded Oral Roberts 46-35 and had a 42-30 edge in the paint.
Arkansas, which had 24 offensive rebounds in its regular-season win over Oral Roberts, totaled 18 in Saturday’s game leading to 18 second-chance points. Justin Smith finished with 12 points and 14 rebounds while Moses Moody had 14 points and six rebounds.
Jalen Tate led Arkansas with 22 points and attacked the rim effectively down the stretch.
“He played well and he was scoring the ball,” Davis said. “We needed that spark and he did it.”
Baylor got its own jolt from Adam Flagler, who led the Bears with 16 points. Flagler helped Baylor prevail despite shooting only 3-for-19 from 3-point range against Villanova.
Davion Mitchell finished with 14 points, Jared Butler only had nine and MaCio Teague had five as the typically prolific trio combined to shoot 1-for-13 from beyond the arc.
Baylor, like Arkansas, plays at a faster pace than they did on Saturday.
But the shooting struggles forced the Bears to grind things out more and attack inside.
“Coach told us we could get to the paint anytime we want,” Mitchell said. “All our missed 3s off the dribble, we was basically bailing them out. We wasn’t making them guard. We were shooting contested 3s. But I think we did a great job the second half getting to the paint.”
–Field Level Media