KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) – Chris Lykes was the last player to reach Arkansas’ locker room, and when he walked through the door, it set off a wild celebration that could be heard all the way back courtside.
One that probably wouldn’t have been nearly so raucous if Kansas State hadn’t made things nearly so tense Monday night.
Lykes was perfect from the foul line down the stretch on his way to 14 points, Connor Vanover also had 14 points and the No. 13 Razorbacks held on after blowing most of an 18-point lead to beat the Wildcats 72-64 and advance to the championship game of the Hall of Fame Classic.
“That’s just my job as a guard, you know? Coach trusts us to have the ball in those situations at the end,” Lykes said, “and we have to be able to knock down those free throws. Something we do every day, routinely. It’s just what is expected.”
Au’Diese Toney added 13 points, JD Notae overcame a 4-for-17 shooting night to finish with 11 and Stanley Umude had 10 for Arkansas (4-0), which advanced to play Cincinnati for the title on Tuesday night.
The Bearcats overcame an early 15-point deficit to beat No. 14 Illinois 71-51 in their semifinal game.
“It’s hard to play with a big lead,” Razorbacks coach Eric Musselman said, “and they did what we expected a team like K-State to do. They fought back and they scrapped. But I thought we did a good job from the 10-minute mark down utilizing clock management to the point where even if we didn’t score it was going to be hard for them to overcome the lead.”
Selton Miguel led the comeback for Kansas State (2-1) with 14 points and nine rebounds, while Nijel Pack added 14 points and Markquis Nowell hit a couple late 3-pointers and finished with 10 before fouling out.
“We came out more aggressive. We took what the defense was giving us,” Pack said. “The first half we kind of overthought things, tried to make things more complicated than they were. The second half we came out more aggressive, fought back, and it was just a little too late.”
The Razorbacks led 12-4 at the first media timeout, 19-8 at the second and 28-11 by the third as the Wildcats struggled on both ends of the floor. Their only recourse against 7-foot-3 Vanover was to foul him – he went 8 for 8 from the free-throw line in the first half – and Toney and Notae provided ample scoring punch from the outside.
The lead stretched to 18 and for once it appeared Musselman would have an easy evening.
The Wildcats made him sweat in the second half.
Miguel was the instigator in the opening minutes, driving to the basket and getting a couple of shots to go high off the glass. Luke Kasubke finally ended the Wildcats’ maddening 0-for-13 drought from the 3-point line, and they later scored seven straight points to cut their deficit to 53-43 with 10:25 to go.
It’s not the first time the Razorbacks have had to deal with pressure.
They got off to a slow start against Mercer and trailed by one with 9:41 to play before an 18-3 run to seize control. They were tied with George Washington early before a 29-5 run put that game away. And they trailed Northern Iowa 75-72 with 4:25 remaining before they finished with a 21-5 charge.
When the Wildcats got within 60-52 on Nowell’s 3 with 4:27 left, Notae answered with a driving basket at the other end. When Pack made a couple foul shots to make it 62-54, Lykes answered with two of his own. And when Pack hit a 3 to make it 66-60 with 54 seconds left, Lykes made two more free throws to put the game away.
“He’s a guy that’s really confident, wants the ball late in the game,” Musselman said, “and certainly those free throws he made were crucial for us to continue to have a cushion.”
Arkansas was just 9 of 25 in the second half and 0 for 7 from beyond the 3-point stripe, and that poor shooting is why the Wildcats made a game of it. Notae in particular struggled with his shot while committing five turnovers and four fouls.
Kansas State proved the final 20 minutes that it can play with a highly ranked team. It’s just that the Wildcats were so slow getting out of the break that they didn’t give themselves much of a chance to actually win the game. They finished 3 of 22 from the arc with Ismael Massoud going 0 for 8 from the field and 0 for 5 from 3.
The Razorbacks will play Cincinnati for the title. Kansas State plays No. 14 Illinois for third place.