For most of the season, Gonzaga could count on a run almost any time it needed one.
On Thursday it didn't come. A vexing Arkansas defense flummoxed the high-octane Bulldogs en route to a 74-68 stunner to send the No. 1 overall seed home from the NCAA tournament. The fourth-seeded Razorbacks, meanwhile, advance to the Elite Eight, where they'll face a second-seeded Duke team that beat Texas Tech later Thursday.
The first half ended ominously for Gonzaga, which suffered a 4:48 scoring drought that allowed Arkansas to enter halftime on a 13-2 run with a 32-29 lead. The second half brought more of the same as the Bulldogs repeatedly struggled to convert on offense.
When Chet Holmgren fouled out with 3:29 remaining, Gonzaga's fate was sealed. The Razorbacks held onto a lead they sustained for the entire half to eliminate the NCAA tournament favorite.
Controversial fouls in game's final minutes
The game's final minutes weren't without controversy. Holmgren picked up his fourth foul on a debatable blocking call in the post with 8:36 remaining.
Chet gets called for his 4th foul after this Toney And-1 👀 pic.twitter.com/DVw2KV6WVM
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 25, 2022
He was whistled for his fifth after jumping vertically to challenge a shot by JD Notae.
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) March 25, 2022
But Arkansas controlled the game with or without Holmgren on the floor en route to its first-ever tournament win over a No. 1 seed. The Razorbacks limited the Bulldogs to 37.5% shooting from the floor and forced a team that averaged seven turnovers through the first two rounds of tournament play into 15 giveaways. Gonzaga fell nearly 20 points short of its season average of 87.2 points per game. Holmgren, a projected top-three pick in the NBA draft, didn't score in the first half.
Arkansas entered the game ranked 14th in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency metrics and rode that strength to victory. They did so carrying a chip on their collective shoulders.
“THANK YOU TO EVERYBODY THAT SAID WE HAD NO CHANCE.” pic.twitter.com/i6a7rlYqMy
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 25, 2022
"Our defense — to hold them to 68 — incredible defense," Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman told CBS after the game. "We believed, and nobody else did. We read everything, I'm telling you. We put it up on or screen every single meal. Thank you to everybody that said we had no chance."
On offense, All-SEC guard Notae led the way with 21 points, six rebounds, six assists and three steals. His points didn't come easy, though. He connected on 9-of-29 shots to get there, including a 2-of-12 effort from 3-point distance. But it was enough to pace the Razorbacks while their defense carried the load. Jaylin Williams and Trey Wade added 15 points each for Arkansas.
Williams echoed Musselman's disrespect card in his postgame comments.
"I think we've been disrespected the whole year," Williams said. "So it's just another thing for us. They gave 'em like an 86% chance to win. So we saw that. We saw everything they were saying.
"We felt like they were dancing before the game. That was disrespect to us. We just came into the game playing hard, with a chip on our shoulder."
Gonzaga never let Arkansas extend its lead into double digits. But every time it mounted a challenge, Arkansas answered. Andrew Nembhard kept Gonzaga's hope alive late with a wild 3-point heave to cut Arkansas' lead to 68-65 with 16.5 seconds remaining.
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 25, 2022
But Arkansas senior Au'Diese Toney sent Nembhard's last-gasp effort away, swatting a layup attempt off the backboard with 10 seconds remaining.
— Follow @FTB_VIDS (@FTB_VIDS) March 25, 2022
The block effectively ended the game and provided an appropriate defensive punctuation to the Arkansas win.
More NCAA disappointment for Gonzaga
For Gonzaga, it's another disappointing end to a run of NCAA dominance in recent years thats included everything but its first championship. Holmgren finished the game with 11 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks before fouling out. Drew Timme led the Bulldogs with 25 points to go with seven rebounds and three assists. Nemhard struggled on a 2-of-11 shooting night to seven points, seven rebounds and three assists.
Gonzaga could end up playing next season without all three as it restarts its effort for a national title. Nemhard's a senior. Holmgren's almost certain to enter his name into the NBA draft. Timme, meanwhile, is a borderline prospect as a junior. He'll have a decision to make this offseason after being named WCC Player of the Year.
Head coach Mark Few, meanwhile, will enter another offseason of questions over whether his program will ever secure a national title. Gonzaga's arguably been college basketball's most consistent program in recent years, with seven straight Sweet 16 appearances and trips to the national championship game in 2017 and 2021. But the program's first NCAA championship remains elusive.