FAYETTEVILLE — Not long after ninth-ranked Arkansas’ overtime thriller against 17th-ranked San Diego State ended in its favor, Ricky Council made a comment from the heart.
In a post to his Instagram story in the early hours of Thanksgiving Day in the Central time zone, Council wrote, “Ugly game. Beautiful result. Love this team (man).”
Many people watching the Razorbacks’ three games at the Maui Invitational likely felt the same way in that moment. And they probably still do.
Arkansas finished college basketball’s premier early-season tournament with a 2-1 mark, beating Louisville 80-54 to begin play and the Aztecs 78-74 in overtime to close the event. The Razorbacks’ loss came to No. 10 Creighton, 90-87.
Arkansas trailed by as many as 12 points against Creighton, and it fell behind by 13 points in the first half to San Diego State the following night. The never-quit attitude exhibited was a primary takeaway from the trip for the Razorbacks’ core players and fourth-year coach Eric Musselman.
“I think we showed great toughness and fight,” freshman guard Anthony Black said Saturday. “We just battled all week, really. It’s tough to play three games back-to-back-to-back. We had guys playing a lot of minutes consistently.
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“I just saw a lot of fight from the team. We really came together, we were pulling for each other and we just wanted to win. We were pretty tough this week, and we battled all week.”
Arkansas trailed the Aztecs 35-26 at halftime, making the win for the Razorbacks their third-largest halftime deficit overcome under Musselman. It trails only Auburn in January 2021 (down 12) and Oral Roberts in December 2020 (down 10).
It was also Arkansas’ third-largest halftime comeback against a ranked team.
“I just learned we have a lot of fight in us,” Council said. “I mean, I knew (we were) capable, but we really showed it. Obviously, we came up short against Creighton, but I feel like we showed a lot of toughness and fight and grit in that game. And then San Diego State, we did the same thing and we pulled off the win.
“I’m proud of the guys and how we played, and the toughness we brought. I’m pretty sure Coach is, too.”
Council is right. Musselman is proud.
Musselman knew he would learn a great deal about the Razorbacks in the tournament, similar to their pre-season exhibition at Texas. He said Arkansas grew up as a team in Hawaii.
“Sometimes even when you lose there are great learning lessons,” Musselman said. “I think as we get into conference play, those games we will be able to reflect back on and use them as learning lessons.”
The Razorbacks on Monday return to Bud Walton Arena for a 7 p.m. game against Troy on SEC Network. The Trojans are 6-1 overall with three victories over non-Division-I teams, plus a win at Florida State, which is 1-6 entering Sunday.
Arkansas’ toughness will be tested again to begin this week. The Razorbacks have the quickest turnaround of any other team in the Maui Invitational field.
Louisville and San Diego State play again Tuesday while Cincinnati, Ohio State and Texas Tech play Wednesday. Tournament champion Arizona and Creighton do not play again until Thursday.
After facing Troy, Arkansas will have four days before hosting San Jose State on Dec. 3.
“I know sleep patterns are a little bit messed up right now for all of us, but hopefully by (Sunday) night we’ll be a little bit more adjusted timeframe-wise,” Musselman said. “Troy is a really well-coached team. They have really good toughness, they play extremely hard, they’re a high-steal team.
“They pound the offensive glass, they jump passing lanes, they, again, shoot a high volume of threes, so they’re good in transition. There’s a lot of things that we have to cover in a very short timeframe.”
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Another takeaway from the Maui Invitational for Musselman was that several players stepping up in different games.
Kamani Johnson was the hero of the tournament finale, finishing with 7 points and 7 rebounds — 4 offensive — and 2 steals in 19 minutes off the bench. He had not played in the previous two games prior to entering in the second half.
Rhode Island transfer Makhel Mitchell pitched in 12 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals in the win against Louisville. Freshman guard Jordan Walsh impressed with defensive intensity on numerous occasions.
And Missouri transfer Trevon Brazile was essential to the team’s success in the final two games. He averaged 18.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals against Creighton and San Diego State after a 1-point outing against the Cardinals.
Brazile gave Arkansas, for stretches, a three-headed monster with Black and Council.
“And I think to play in such close games, I think that really helps you down the road,” Musselman said. “We got to see contrasting styles of play.
“I think there was tremendous amount of benefit from our end.”