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Colgate puts scare into Arkansas, falls in first round

For a moment, it seemed the Raiders would brush aside the SEC foe.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Colgate at Arkansas Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Colgate nearly brushed aside its first non-conference test of the season.

The No. 14 seed Raiders put multiple scares into No. 3 seed Arkansas, ultimately falling 85-68 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Despite the loss, it was a game that validated one of the country’s most mysterious teams.

The Raiders sparkling NET rating (9th in the country) and drool-worthy advanced metrics were built against a Patriot League only schedule which, to their credit, they blitzed through. Colgate finally was able to put its 14-1 overall record — and 13 straight wins — to the test against one of the SEC’s hottest teams.

And it was all Raiders early. At least, sort of.

After starting the game 1-9 from the field, senior guard Jack Ferguson (11 points) helped engineer a torrent of offense that had the Raiders leading 33-19 with just under six minutes to go in the first half. The PL champions were playing with a confidence that befit the fast-paced, high-scoring offense that many circled as a thrilling match for a similarly-minded Razorbacks team.

But Eric Musselman’s team would battle back quickly.

The Razorbacks ripped off a 17-0 run over the final 3:44 of the first half to take a three-point lead into the half. The Raiders struggled against a ramped up Arkansas defense that kept them plastered to the perimeter, all the while seeing leading scorer Jordan Burns held scoreless (0-6 FG) in the opening period.

After a lackluster first few minutes, Colgate would come to life again in the second half, and plant a second scare into Arkansas.

Burns, the Patriot League Player of the Year, came alive, hitting two three’s amid a 12-0 run that put the Raiders back into the driver’s seat. The sequence also included three’s from Tucker Richardson (9 points) and Nelly Cummings (14 points), and was followed by bruising play from freshman center Jeff Woodward (11 points), who attacked the Razorbacks without abandon throughout.

Ultimately, the athletic Razorbacks — led by Justin Smith (29 points) — had the final, definitive blow in the game. 22 turnovers and a four-plus minute scoring drought late in the second half proved fatal for an upset bid that seemed very much in the works throughout the afternoon.

Matt Langel and the Raiders now regroup after a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, and await an especially critical decision on whether Burns will return to Hamilton for another year. Whether he does or not, the PL power seems firmly entrenched on the mid-major scene, even if Friday afternoon’s big moment just slipped out of their fingers.